Research has debated whether children reflect on artists’ intentions when comprehending pictures, or instead derive meaning entirely from resemblance. We explore these hypotheses by comparing how typically developing toddlers and low-functioning children with autism (a population impaired in intentional reasoning) interpret abstract pictures. In Experiment 1, both groups mapped familiar object names onto abstract pictures, however, they related the same representations to different 3-D referents. Toddlers linked abstract pictures with intended referents they did not resemble, while children with autism mapped picture-referent relations based on resemblance. Experiment 2 showed that toddlers do not rely upon linguistic cues to determine intended referential relations. Experiment 3 confirmed that the responding of children with autism was not due to perseveration or associative word learning, and also provided independent evidence of their intention-reading difficulties. We argue that typically developing children derive meaning from the social-communicative intentions underlying pictures when resemblance is an inadequate cue to meaning. By contrast, children with autism do not reflect on artists’ intentions and simply relate pictures to whatever they happen to resemble.