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Psychological Theories of Autism

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Psychological Theories of Autism

The behaviours, thinking styles, and social characteristics of someone with autism differ from neurotypical people. Research has attempted to establish the fundamental aspects of these behaviours in autism and how they are expressed, from biological to psychological theories. Here, we will discuss the psychological theories of autism.

Theories and models for autism

Psychological explanations of autism explain the underlying psychological processes of autism in terms of characteristic behaviours and thinking styles. There are three main theories, two of which focus on either social characteristics or non-social characteristics. A third model has attempted to bring social and non-social characteristics together in a single framework.

Three cognitive theories of autism

There are three main cognitive theories of autism:

  1. Theory of mind

  2. Executive dysfunction

  3. Weak central coherence

The first explains the social characteristics of autism, while the latter two describe the non-social characteristics of autism.

Social theories of autism

The most influential psychological explanation of autism is the theory of mind, which explains the social characteristics of autism, exploring empathy and the ability to see outside of your perspective.

Theory of mind

Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Frith (1983) investigated the reason why autistic children and adults often:

  1. Misunderstand social situations

  2. Cannot put themselves in other people’s shoes

  3. Are unaware others have different feelings, thoughts, knowledge, and beliefs from them.

Baron-Cohen and colleagues developed and used the ‘Sally-Anne False Belief Task’ in their research. This task tested the false beliefs autistic individuals often had about other people’s views. So the ability to understand false beliefs is a vital part of understanding others’ thoughts and beliefs (i.e. theory of mind).

Theory of mind autism test

The Sally-Anne False Belief task was used to check if autistic children could understand false beliefs. Neurotypically developed children at the age of 4–5 years old can primarily identify that Sally has a false belief about where the marble is.

Psychological Theories of Autism theory of mind autism test Sally-Anne StudySmarterSally-Anne false belief task, Nisma Kashif - StudySmarter

In this task, two theoretical children known as Sally and Anne are said to be in a room. Sally has a basket, and Anne has a box. Before leaving the room, Sally places a marble into her basket and covers it with a blanket. Anne then takes the marble out of the basket and covers it back up, and places the item in her box. Sally returns, and the children have to answer the belief question: where will Sally look for her marble?

The correct response is that Sally will look in the basket since it’s where she thinks the marble is. She won’t look in the box (i.e. the place where it actually is) because she wasn’t there when Anne changed the location. Sally’s belief does not correlate with reality, and understanding this is a core aspect of the theory of mind.

However, this test is not a way to diagnose autism, since some autistic children would be able to answer correctly and some neurotypical children who would have troubles.

Theory of mind (ToM) is about perceiving other people’s different mental states, beliefs, intentions, feelings, etc. Autistic people have difficulties with ToM, which is often linked to them thinking literally, leading to difficulties understanding non-literal speech, e.g. sarcasm or irony.

How robust is the theory of mind test really?

Happé (1994) investigated how autistic people interpret non-literal speech by having them read a story containing irony and then asking questions about it. They highlighted that autistic people tend to pass first and second-order theory of mind tests while still having issues.

Ann’s mother gives her dinner, but Ann doesn’t say thank you or even look away from the TV. Ann’s mother says ‘Well that’s very nice isn’t it? That’s what I call politeness!’ They were asked:

  • Is what Ann’s mother said true?
  • Why did Ann’s mother say that?

While autistic people could detect it wasn’t true, they couldn’t state why she could have been saying it, e.g., to joke around or teach Ann a lesson. Therefore, this problem is present in autistic people, and the National Autistic Society suggests speaking to autistic people literally and clearly. So ToM difficulties and language skills are linked. People with language problems are more likely to fail at false belief tasks, so it may be that ToM difficulties stem from language problems and not the other way round.

Evaluation

Strengths include Golan et al.'s (2007) provided research support. They found that autistic individuals were worse at identifying emotions in people’s voices than neurotypical people.

Weaknesses include:

  • The Sally-Anne task has storytelling that could be especially confusing for autistic children due to their communicative impairments, thus lowering the internal validity. The results may be because of this difficulty rather than testing for ToM.

  • There were still 20% of autistic children who got the answer right, which shows this theory doesn’t account for all cases.

  • Baron-Cohen has been criticised for this theory because it only explains the social characteristics of autism.

Autism and the theory of mind in psychology: ethics

There are no particular ethical problems with ToM research because informed consent was obtained from the parents of the child participants (since they cannot give full informed consent themselves) and the participants and their parents had the right to terminate the study at any time. No materials or methods that could cause psychological or physical harm were used in the study, so they were protected from this. Their identities were kept confidential, they were interviewed, and there was no deception about any part of the study.

Concerns were raised that all autistic children were lumped together in the conclusions of the findings. Recent research on ToM and autistic children shows that some autistic children do quite well in the ToM category. It is neither fair nor accurate to conclude that autistic children have no concept of ToM, but that it exists on a scale.

Non-social theories of autism

Non-social characteristics of autism include sticking to familiar routines, having repeated movements and activities, and being resistant to new and unfamiliar things. The two main non-social theories of autism are:

  1. Executive dysfunction

  2. Weak central coherence.

Executive dysfunction

Demetriou et al. (2017) conducted a meta-analysis of executive dysfunction. Their results suggested that the non-social characteristics were due to executive function problems, establishing that those with autism spectrum disorder had a broad executive dysfunction issue that is mostly stable they develop.

Executive function is the mental capacity to organise thoughts and actions to meet goals, It is the cognitive process we use to control our behaviours.

Executive functions include the mental capabilities needed to complete tasks, shift between tasks, and think of new things. One of the main tests of executive function that autistic people have difficulty with is the Tower of Hanoi Test.

Tower of Hanoi autism test

Craig and Baron-Cohen (1999) tested the creativity of their participants in three studies using the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT). Participants came up with ideas, but the neurotypical child’s ideas included a greater and richer range of suggestions.

Psychological Theories of Autism three cognitive theories of autism Tower of Hanoi StudySmarterThe initial state of the Tower of Hanoi, Wikimedia Commons

Psychological Theories of Autism three cognitive theories of autism Tower of Hanoi StudySmarterThe expected final state of the Tower of Hanoi, Wikimedia Commons

Weak central coherence

Weak central coherence is a thinking style that consists of having good attention to detail and having difficulty grasping the most important parts of an idea or concept based on the overall mass or collection of details. Attention to visual detail has been studied using the embedded figures test.

For instance, if confronted with many buildings centralised in one area of the map, a person with strong central coherence would understand it was a city. However, a person with weak central coherence would see a lot of buildings and would not understand the overall concept of it.

Embedded figures autism test

In the embedded figures test, one must find a simple shape embedded in a larger picture of irrelevant scene images. Autistic children would be shown this image and have to answer: ‘can you pick out a shape within the pushchair figure that matches the small triangle exactly?’

Psychological Theories of Autism three cognitive theories of autism embedded figures test StudySmarterEmbedded figures test, Nisma Kashif - StudySmarter

Autistic people find this shape quicker than neurotypical people, focusing on the details rather than the whole picture, i.e. local processing. Weak central coherence can explain the narrow focus on specific interests and the adherence to familiar routines. This may not matter to a neurotypical person but can cause extreme anxiety in an autistic person.

Evaluation

Strengths include:

  • Shah and Frith (1993) provided research support. They got participants to make a pattern with smaller blocks. Autistic individuals were better at this task, showing they have a bias for local processing, as the WCC theory suggests.

  • Real-world application: local processing in autistic people could cause them to have troubles with tasks that a neurotypical person would have no problem with, e.g., combining separate sentences to form a coherent story. Another example would include understanding the whole picture of, e.g. a pushchair rather than a bunch of triangles and shapes.

  • However, local processing in autistic people could also cause them to have advantages over neurotypicals too by helping them perform some tasks better, e.g. picking out defects in items on a production line in a factory.

  • This difference in abilities (mainly when it results in advantages) help autistic people be more comfortable in getting diagnosis and therapy.

Weaknesses include:

  • However, the internal validity of Shah and Frith (1993) was lowered due to researcher bias.

  • The theory is unclear as to where the WCC comes from, e.g. brain regions or environmental influences that could have caused it, while other theories state this. So it needs a bit more research to be done.

Psychological theories of autism: integrative explanation

The ToM approach focuses on social characteristics, while the executive dysfunction and weak central coherence focus on non-social characteristics. Baron-Cohen devised a new framework combining social and non-social characteristics called the empathising-systemising theory.

Background for this approach was the research that suggested autistic people can struggle to understand and recognise other people’s emotions. Baron-Cohen et al. (2001) conducted a revised and improved the ‘reading the mind in the eyes’ test with autistic adults where they’d see a picture of someone’s eyes and have to say what emotion the person was feeling.

Participants had to answer: ‘what emotion is this person feeling?’

  1. Aghast
  2. Impatient
  3. Irritated
  4. Reflective

Autistic adults had more difficulty and had more incorrect answers than control participants. Therefore, Baron-Cohen then suggested that autistic people have problems empathising.

This problem leads to difficulties in making friends and interacting.

Empathising is recognising or understanding other people’s emotions and reacting appropriately.

Autistic people also tend to be drawn to things that have rules and systems, e.g. math, physics, technology, i.e. systemising (Baron-Cohen, 2009). Therefore, autistic people have a ‘low empathising/high systemising’ profile (compared to medium levels of both for neurotypicals).

Baron-Cohen et al. (2014) discovered the profile when giving autistic and neurotypical participants two questionnaires: the empathy quotient (EQ) and the systemising quotient (SQ).

Evaluation

The eye test research this model relies on lacks ecological validity. In the real world, most of the time, autistic people can see other people’s faces, which makes it a lot easier to read emotions (e.g. with facial expressions). Also, there was a small sample size of only 15 autistic subjects compared to 500 controls.

General evaluation of psychological theories of autism

The empathising-systemising model and other theories aren’t inclusive of all autistic people since the research only includes ‘high-functioning’ autistic people, who also have a lot of individual differences between them. Also, they may not account for women with autism since they are often not included in autism research and have different responses when included, which studies do not acknowledge correctly (Mandy et al., 2012). None of the theories explains the unusual sensory responses most autistic people experience at different levels, e.g. hypo/hypersensitivity to sounds and other sensory stimuli.


Psychological Theories of Autism - Key takeaways

  • There are three main cognitive theories of autism: theory of mind, executive dysfunction, and weak central coherence.
  • Theory of mind – Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Frith (1983) investigated why autistic children and adults often misunderstood social situations, were unable to put themselves in other people’s shoes, and were unaware others had different feelings and thoughts from them.
  • The Tower of Hanoi test is used to check executive function and autistic people struggle greatly with it since they find it hard to devise a strategy to transfer all the rings while not breaking the rules of the test.
  • Weak central coherence is a thinking style that consists of having good attention to detail and having difficulty grasping the most important parts of an idea or concept.
  • Baron-Cohen devised a new framework combining social and non-social characteristics called the empathising-systemising theory.

Frequently Asked Questions about Psychological Theories of Autism

Yes.

  • The Sally-Anne false belief task tested autistic children on this ability.
  • Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) found that 85% of the neurotypical children had correct responses and 80% of the Down Syndrome children, but only 20% of the autistic children got it correct.
  • This finding suggests autistic people have impaired theory of mind, so they have trouble seeing situations from other people’s points of view.


However, more recent research has highlighted issues with the theory of mind test, suggesting it does not test the concept properly in autistic children, and some still pass, so it doesn’t account for all cases of autism.

There are three main cognitive theories of autism:

  1. Theory of mind
  2. Executive dysfunction
  3. Weak central coherence.

The first explains social characteristics of autism while the latter two explain the non-social characteristics of autism.


There is also an integrative framework which combines social and non social characteristics called the empathising-systemising theory.

There are three main cognitive theories of autism:

  1. Theory of mind
  2. Executive dysfunction
  3. Weak central coherence
  4. The newly revised empathising-systemising theory.

Theory of mind (ToM) was originally tested using the Sally-Anne false belief task. It includes pictures and text and shows the participant two girls, Sally and Anne, one with a basket one with a box. Sally puts her marble in her basket and closes it, and leaves. Then Anne takes it, puts it in her box, and closes it. Sally comes back to play with it.

The participants then had to answer, ‘where will Sally look for her marble?’


The correct response is that Sally will look in the basket since its the place where she thinks the marble is. She won’t look in the box (i.e., where it actually is) because she wasn’t there when Anne changed the location.


Autistic children were often unable to correctly guess the answer (only 20% got it right) because they have trouble putting themselves in other people’s shoes and realising other people have different thoughts and feelings than them. Therefore, autistic people have impaired ToM.

There are 3 main cognitive theories of Autism:

  1. Theory of mind
  2. Executive dysfunction
  3. Weak central coherence.

Psychological research has attempted to establish the fundamental aspects of these behaviours in autism and how they are expressed, from biological to psychological theories.


Psychological explanations of autism explain the underlying psychological processes of autism in terms of characteristic behaviours and thinking styles. There are three main theories, two of which focus on either social characteristics or non-social characteristics. A third model has attempted to bring social and non-social characteristics together in a single framework.

Final Psychological Theories of Autism Quiz

Question

What are the three main psychological theories of autism? 

Show answer

Answer

There are three main cognitive theories of autism:

  1. Theory of mind
  2. Executive dysfunction
  3. Weak central coherence.


Show question

Question

Which theory/theories explain(s) the social characteristics of autism?

Show answer

Answer

Show question

Question

Which theory/theories explain(s) the non-social characteristics of autism?

Show answer

Answer

Executive dysfunction and weak central coherence

Show question

Question

Do individuals with autism have impaired theory of mind?

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Answer

Yes

Show question

Question

What were the findings of Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) when they tested participants with the Sally-Anne false belief task and its conclusion?

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Answer

  • Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) found that 85% of the neurotypical children had correct responses and 80% of the Down Syndrome children, but only 20% of the autistic children got it correct. 
  • This shows autistic people have impaired theory of mind, so they have trouble seeing situations from other people’s points of view.

Show question

Question

What did Golan et al. (2007) find as research support for ToM?

Show answer

Answer

They found that autistic individuals were worse at identifying emotions in people’s voices than neurotypical people.

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Question

What does ToM stand for?

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Answer

Theory of mind

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Question

What is the name of the test that the theory of mind is tested with?

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Answer

False belief test

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Question

What is the name of the test that executive dysfunction is tested with?

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Answer

Tower of Hanoi test

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Question

What was the name of the test that weak central coherence is tested with?

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Answer

Embedded figures test

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Question

What was the name of the test that the empathising-systemising theory relied on?

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Answer

Reading the mind in the eyes test

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Question

How did autistic people perform on the Tower of Hanoi test?

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Answer

Autistic people struggle greatly with this test since they find it hard to devise a strategy to transfer all the rings while not breaking the rules of the test.

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Question

What are the main non-social characteristics of autism?

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Answer

Non-social characteristics of autism include sticking to familiar routines, having repeated movements and activities, and resisting new and unfamiliar things.

Show question

Question

What is weak central coherence?

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Answer

Weak central coherence is a thinking style that consists of having good attention to detail and having difficulty grasping the most important parts of an idea or concept.

Show question

Question

What were the findings by Happé & Booth (2008) of the embedded figures test?

Show answer

Answer

Autistic people find this shape quicker than neurotypical people, which shows they focus on the details rather than the whole picture, i.e. local processing.

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Question

What is the name of the theory that integrates social and non-social characteristics of autism into one framework, and who developed it?

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Answer

Baron-Cohen developed the empathising-systemising theory.

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Question

According to the empathising-systemising theory, what is the profile of autistic vs neurotypical people?

Show answer

Answer

Autistic people have a ‘low empathising/high systemising’ profile, while neurotypical people have medium levels of both.

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