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Individual Differences In Autism

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Individual Differences In Autism

Autism affects the way a person acts. It reflects a difference in how the brain operates in other people and appears during childhood development. Autism has gained some notoriety throughout the years through no faults of its own (some of you may be familiar with the incorrect assumption that vaccines cause autism, a study that was debunked but remains prevalent today).

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a category of various developmental disorders, affecting around four in 10,000 children. The typical autism spectrum disorder symptoms are:

  • Difficulties with social interactions and talking to others
  • Difficulties with empathy
  • Easily overwhelmed by stimuli
  • Engages in repetitive behaviour

Individual Differences in Autism [+] Child Jigsaw Differences [+] StudySmarterA child head with jigsaw pieces facing outward, FlatIcons

What are the causes of individual differences in Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Research investigating individual differences is used to identify if the differences found between people can explain behaviour. Or, specifically, mental illnesses.

Individual differences are defined by how people differ in biological/physiological, psychological and cognitive characteristics.

For example, research on individual differences in autism has identified gender, personality and developmental differences with the disorder.

Individual Differences in Autism [+] Jigsaw [+] StudySmarterHead with jigsaw pieces, Flaticon

Personality And Individual Differences In Autistic Adults

People with autism tend to have difficulties in social situations, be anxious, and stick to strict routines. These are characteristics of some personality styles. Psychology research attempts to identify an association between specific personality styles and autism.

Schriber, Robins and Solomon (2014) compared the Big Five Personality scores of neurotypical children and children with autism.

The results found that children with autism scored significantly less in extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness. However, children with autism had significantly higher scores indicating neuroticism than neurotypical children.

These results suggest higher levels of neuroticism personality traits may be a psychological marker for autism.

Individual Differences In Autism Based On Gender

Typically, more males than females are diagnosed with autism. This data suggests that sex differences may be a cause of autism. Many have even referred to autism as an 'extreme male brain' condition.

Around three-quarters of people diagnosed with autism are male!

Why there is a higher prevalence rate of autism in males than females is still not fully understood. However, research has identified that individual differences in autism based on gender may be because:

  • Males are more likely to inherit mutated genes that are linked to autism
  • They have high levels of testosterone, a sex hormone found in men
  • Women may inherit protective factors that make them less likely to inherit autism

It is important to note that it has been argued that gender differences in the prevalence of autism may not be a valid argument. This is because this difference may be due to bias in diagnosis. Symptoms of high-functioning women with ASD may be similar to other disorders, called co-morbidity.

Reactive attachment disorder has similar symptoms to autism. This disorder is more common in females than males. Therefore, clinicians may be confusing the disorders' symptoms, which may cause the gender differences in autism that has been found.

Baron-Cohen et al. (2005): Exaggeration of the male brain

A study conducted by Baron-Cohen et al. (2005) suggested that females tend to be strong empathisers whilst males tend to be strong systemisers.

This means that females tend to succeed more in inferring emotional states and responding appropriately in social situations. In contrast, males tend to focus more on the rules surrounding the situation (input vs output) and predict and respond to behaviours based on this principle, relying on the rules that govern this system. They are weaker empathisers.

Baron-Cohen et al. (2005) suggested that the 'extreme male brain' is behind the gender differences in autism. An autistic brain is simply an exaggerated male brain structure, focusing on the neuroanatomical aspects of the disorder.

Bailey et al. (1994): Heavier brains

Whilst normal male brains tend to be heavier than female brains (male brains usually weigh around 1,350 grams, whilst female brains weigh approximately 1,200 grams), Bailey et al. (1994) found that the brains of male autistic patients were even heavier than this. The table below shows their results, indicating their age, brain weight, and what their brains should weigh based on the averages of a normal brain. In some cases, we can see that their actual brain weight was considerably larger than that of a normal brain.

The normal ranges were given as means +/- 2.5 SD.

AgeActual Brain Weight (grams)Normal Brain Weight (grams)
41,5251,250-1,350
231,6001,390-1,490
271,4501,390-1,490
241,8051,390-1,490
201,4051,390-1,490
241,8201,390-1,490

What are the theories of individual differences causes of Autism?

Theories such as the theory of mind and the weak central coherence theory have been proposed to explain individual differences in autism. The theories explain how differences such as how differences in cognitive processing can cause autism.

Theory of Mind (ToM)

Research suggests that people with ASD have a weak theory of mind (ToM). This theory explains why people with ASD may have difficulties talking and interacting with others, as they cannot truly empathise with and understand another person's perspective.

ToM is the ability to understand one's own and other people's mental states, including beliefs, emotions, intentions.

An example of a person diagnosed with autism with a poor ToM is that they may not realise someone is sad because they failed a test.

ToM is needed for:

  • Social communication skills
  • Being able to predict how someone will feel based on the situation that they have just experienced
  • Predict behaviour
  • Understanding how one's own emotions may differ from others

The ToM may not be an innate cognitive process. In other words, we may not be born with it; it develops over time. The theory suggests ToM develops through experiences and interactions with peers.

For instance:

  • Observing others actions
  • Imitation

This suggests that individuals' experiences may explain individual differences in autism.

ToM in people diagnosed with ASD tend not to fully develop a ToM:

  • Neuroimaging studies show that the medial prefrontal cortex and amygdala are involved in ToM processes. Brain scans of young children diagnosed with autism have shown larger amygdalas, for instance. Therefore, dysfunction in these areas may explain why people with ASD do not fully develop a ToM.
  • Research showed that 80% of participants with autism failed the false-belief task. The pass rate of typically developed children were 85% (Baron-Cohen, 1985).

Baron-Cohen (1985) Study

Consider the following study by Baron-Cohen (1985).

Aim

Identify if typically developed children with autism or Down's Syndrome could pass a false-belief task.

A false belief is understanding that people's behaviour is determined by people's beliefs of reality rather than reality itself. Their belief of reality may differ from what is actually the case, and thus, theory of mind is the ability to understand that they may be unaware of the actual situation.

Procedure

A research scenario was enacted using dolls and is known as the Sally-Anne Test.

Sally has a basket in this scenario, and Anne has a box. Sally places a marble in a basket and leaves. Anne then takes it out of the basket and places it in her box. The participants are then asked, "Where will Sally look for her marble?"

Children should say Sally would look in her basket to pass the task, as she still believes the marble is in her basket. She did not witness Annie move the marble. Children fail this task if they say Sally would look in Anne's box.

Findings

80% of children with autism, 14% of children with Down's Syndrome, and 15% typically developed children failed the task.

Individual Differences in Autism [+] Doll False belief Autism [+] StudySmarterA doll, flaticon.com/free-icons

Evaluation

Let's consider the strengths and weaknesses of this test.

  • A strength of this theory is that it was proposed after conducting research. This indicates that there is valid, empirical evidence that supports the theory.
  • A weakness of this theory is that poor ToM has affected other disorders. Poor ToM also characterises schizophrenia, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and schizophrenia. Therefore, ToM cannot solely explain ASD.

Weak Central Coherence Theory (WCC)

Frith (1989) proposed the weak central coherence theory (WCC) to autism.

Central coherence is the ability to understand the context of something or see the big picture of it. It's an ability to understand the scope of things.

As the theory's name suggests, Frith argued that people diagnosed with ASD have a weak CC (WCC).

A person not diagnosed with ASD may see a family, whereas someone with ASD may see many people standing together.

Frith criticised other explanations of autism because they tend only to explain the deficits of ASD. However, although people with ASD have these deficits there are also things that they do well/better at.

For instance, they may do really well in maths or music.

Additionally, some people diagnosed with ASD can be detail-orientated. This means that they can easily see details that are hard to pick out from others.

Frith's WCC can explain deficits and strengths of people with ASD:

  • Strengths - people with ASD would excel at tasks that involve people focusing on details
  • Deficits - people with ASD may not be as good at tasks that involve looking at the big picture

Frith described people with ASD as having a detail-focused cognitive style.

Frith explained that this is a result of people with ASD having superior local processing and inferior global processing.

Local processing is when people attend to information in a detail-orientated way. This may mean looking at the individual components that form a picture.

Global processing is when people attend to information in a way that shows the big picture. When using global processing, people can combine many elements to get a gist of the big picture.

Evaluation

  • A strength of this theory is that it does not focus on deficits that people with autism have. Instead, it also explains how people with ASD have advanced skills.
  • A weakness of this theory is that it does not consider how environmental factors such as experience may affect autism. This suggests that the theory is reductionist, as it does not consider all factors that may explain ASD.

Individual Differences In Autism - Key takeaways

  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a category of various developmental disorders, affecting around four in 10,000 children. It typically results in difficulties with social interactions and talking to others, difficulties with empathy, and becoming easily overwhelmed by stimuli.
  • Research investigating individual differences is used to identify if the differences found between people can explain behaviour. Or, specifically mental illnesses. In the case of autism, this is looking at biological/physiological, psychological and cognitive discrepancies.
  • Personality and gender differences are examples of individual differences in autism that has been identified in research
    • ASD is related to the neuroticism personality trait
    • Males are more likely than women to develop autism
    • The extreme male brain is one theory suggesting the reasoning behind this difference in gender rates of diagnosis.
  • Psychological theories have been developed to explain the causes behind individual differences in autism. These theories are:
    • The theory of mind
    • The weak central coherence theory

Frequently Asked Questions about Individual Differences In Autism

The areas of how people with autism may differ from neurotypical people are: 

  • Difficulties with social interactions and talking to others

  • Difficulties with empathy

  • Easily overwhelmed by stimuli

  • Engage in repetitive behaviour 

The common characteristics of individuals with autism are:

  • detail orientated
  • may find it difficult to see things in context 
  • have a poor theory of mind 
  • have difficulties in social situations  

It is important to treat a person with autism as an individual because autism is a disorder that is based on a spectrum. This means that the severity of symptoms varies between people with autism. Therefore, people with autism have different needs. 

Research has noted that more males are diagnosed with autism than women, and around three-quarters of people diagnosed with autism are male. This discrepancy may be due to the lack of correct diagnosis in women, as some theorise women are more high functioning despite having autism due to their ability to empathise more. 

People with high functioning autism are able to be independent to a certain extent. This means that they may be able to perform tasks such as work, daily chores independent. However, people with low functioning autism cannot do these independently. 

Final Individual Differences In Autism Quiz

Question

What are the individual difference explanations for autism? 

Show answer

Answer

The individual difference explanations for autism are: 

  • gender 
  • personality traits 
  • theory of mind 
  • central coherence

Show question

Question

Which gender is more likely to develop autism? 

Show answer

Answer

Males 

Show question

Question

What is co-morbidity? 

Show answer

Answer

Co-morbidity is when two or more illnesses/disorders have similar/ overlapping symptoms. 

Show question

Question

What is an issue of co-morbidity? 

Show answer

Answer

An issue of co-morbidity is that it can lead to mis-diagnosis.

Show question

Question

What does research suggest about the potential causes of gender differences in autism? 

Show answer

Answer

Research has identified that individual differences in autism based on gender may be caused by:

  • males are more likely to inherit mutated genes that have been linked to autism 
  • high levels of testosterone, a sex hormone found in men
  • women may inherit protective factors that make them less likely to inherit autism
  • male autistic brains tend to be heavier 
  • some refer to autistic brains as an 'extreme male brain' 


Show question

Question

How are personality styles and symptoms of autism related? 

Show answer

Answer

People with autism tend to have difficulties in social situations, can be anxious and may like sticking to strict routines. These are characteristics of some personality styles.

Show question

Question

Which of the following personality styles did Schriber, Robins and Solomon (2014) find to be related to autism? 

Show answer

Answer

Neuroticism 

Show question

Question

What was the procedure of the Schriber, Robins and Solomon (2014) study? 

Show answer

Answer

Schriber, Robins and Solomon (2014) compared personality scores of neurotypical children and children diagnosed with autism. The big five personality scores were used to measure personality scores. 

Show question

Question

Is the theory of mind an innate cognitive process? 

Show answer

Answer

Yes 

Show question

Question

What is the theory of mind? 

Show answer

Answer

ToM is the ability to understand own and other peoples mental states. This can include their beliefs, emotions, intentions.

Show question

Question

What was the procedure of the Baron-Cohen study?

Show answer

Answer

A research scenario was enacted using dolls. The scenario was Sally places a marble in a basket and leaves. Anne then takes it out of the basket and places it in a box. The participants are asked, "Where will Sally look for her marble?". The responses of neurotypical children, children with ASD and Down syndrome were compared. 

Show question

Question

According to Baron-Cohen's (1985) findings do children with ASD have difficulties understanding false beliefs?  

Show answer

Answer

Yes 

Show question

Question

What is a weakness of the theory of mind explanation for autism? 

Show answer

Answer

A weakness of this theory is that poor ToM has been found to affect other disorders. Schizophrenia, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and schizophrenia are also characterised by poor ToM. Therefore, ToM cannot solely explain ASD. 

Show question

Question

Who proposed the weak central coherence theory?

Show answer

Answer

The weak central coherence theory was proposed by Frith (1989).

Show question

Question

How did Frith describe cognitive styles of people with autism? 

Show answer

Answer

Frith described people with ASD as having a detail-focused cognitive style.

Show question

Question

Which type of processing do people with ASD rely on, according to Frith? 

Show answer

Answer

Local processing 

Show question

Question

How does Frith's WCC theory explain the strengths and weaknesses of people with ASD?

Show answer

Answer

Frith's WCC can explain deficits and strengths of people with ASD:

  • strengths- tasks that involve people focusing on details people with ASD would excel at 
  • deficits - tasks that involve looking at the big picture people with ASD may not be as good at

Show question

Question

What is central coherence? 

Show answer

Answer

Central coherence is the ability to understand the context of something or see the big picture of something. 

Show question

Question

How does Frith describe people with ASDs central coherence? 

Show answer

Answer

Weak 

Show question

Question

What is a strength of Frith's WCC theory? 

Show answer

Answer

A strength of Frith's theory is that it does not focus on deficits that people with autism have. Instead, it also attempts to explain how people with ASD have advanced skills. 

Show question

Question

What is the extreme male brain?

Show answer

Answer

It is a theory proposed by Baron-Cohen et al. (2005) that suggests autistic brains are exaggerated male brains. 

Show question

Question

What study suggests male autistic brains are heavier than normal brains, implying a gender difference in autistic brains? 

Show answer

Answer

Bailey et al. (1994)

Show question

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