All three of these cognitive theories have some explanatory power
over ASD and the symptoms of ASD. However, none of them can explain all of the
symptoms that an autistic individual may exhibit. This shows that none of the
theories, individually, can fully explain autism so are not domain-specific. Due
to this, I think that the future direction of research should shift, and study combinations
of theories (that share a link) as one explanation: for example, executive function
and theory of mind.


Another diagnostic criterion of ASD is having difficulty participating
in effective social communication/interactions (American Psychiatric
Association, 2013). Weak central coherence can explain some problems that
commonly contribute to this difficulty. For example, when communicating with
someone, individuals with autism focus on the, sometimes insignificant, details
rather than understanding the broader meaning and context. Similarly to the
other theories, this too cannot fully explain autism and all its symptoms.  

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Shah & Frith (1983) used the Embedded Figures test on autistic
children to investigate the weak central coherence theory. This test involved
showing the participant a complex design then tasking them with finding the
simple shape within this design. The finding showed that autistic children were
more accurate and performed at a higher mental age than their own. This demonstrated
that some symptoms of autism can be seen a superior skill rather than a


Frith (1989) characterised central coherence, the integration of
information to give it a higher-level of meaning, as typical information
processing. It’s described as ‘typical’ because it is in the centre of a normal
distribution continuum. Individuals with autism classically have weak central
coherence. This means that they see the basic individual parts of something
before they see a whole (Kanner, 1943), whereas typical people usually see the
‘bigger picture’ (eg. context and meaning). Having a weak central coherence is
seen as an attention bias rather than a deficit.


Executive functions and theory of mind have an intricate
relationship as it been suggested that the development of theory of mind is
dependent on the development of executive functions (Ozonoff, Pennington &
Rogers, 1991). If that were correct then it would mean that theory of mind
could be classed as an executive function which could then lead to the argument
that the theory of mind theory is not separate and should be integrated the
executive functions theory.


Unlike the theory of mind theory of autism, this theory can explain
RRBs. For example, one common RRB is the need to have sameness and routines and
any attempt to shift from the routines is usually meet with severe distress. An
explanation of this could be a lack of mental flexibility, which is an
executive function.


Executive dysfunction is not unique to ASD, there are lots of
disorders that appear to have executive functioning problems as a cause. For example,
some ADHD symptoms, like inattention, have been linked to executive function
deficits (Thorell, 2007). This means that executive dysfunction is not likely
to be the main, or only, cause of autism or ADHD. There has to be other factors,
like childhood experiences, influencing the development of both of these
disorders or they wouldn’t be classified as different. Also, if both disorders are
linked to EF deficits it could mean that there is likely to be co-morbidity of the


Ozonoff, Pennington & Rogers (1991) used the Wisconsin Card Sort
Task to study executive functioning. This task involves sorting cards into one
of the three categories: colour, number or shape. The participants are not told
the rule/category of sorting. When the participant has sorted the cards the
experimenter gives feedback in the form of ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’. If they
are incorrect they try again until they are correct and if they are told correct
then the rule is changed without the knowledge of the participant and they are
asked to sort the cards again. A failure to change to a new sorting category at
this point would be seen as a preservative error. The findings showed that
participants with autism didn’t change focus and were unwilling to shift from
the established system of sorting the cards. This sorting task is designed to
test whether participants can adapt thinking from an old situation to a new one
(mental flexibility).


Executive functions (EF) give individuals the ability to carry out
processes/behaviours that are appropriate for the achievement of a future goal.
These behaviours, which are usually associated with frontal structures of the
brain, include: planning, organisation, working memory, impulse control and
mental flexibility. People with autism have been found to have executive
functioning problems.


The theory of mind theory does explain autistic symptoms. For example,
one diagnostic criterion for autism is having a deficit in social and emotional
reciprocity (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). This means that autistic
children have trouble understanding that their behaviour has an effect on
others. They also often act inappropriately to the emotional expressions of
others as they presume that what they are thinking and feeling is what others
are too. This links back to autistic children having false-belief as thinking
that everyone has the same thoughts and emotions to you is inconsistent with
reality.  However, this theory doesn’t
explain all symptoms of autism. One of the symptoms left unexplained by this
theory is RRBs. This suggests that this theory cannot fully explain autism and
therefore needs more information to do so. The solution to this problem could
be to combine complementary explanations.


The theory of mind theory of autism is not universal to all
individuals with ASD. The results of the research from Baron-Cohen, Leslie
& Frith (1985) show that the majority of autistic children don’t have
theory of mind. However, 20% of the autistic children that took part in the
study showed that they have theory of mind by answering the false belief
question correctly. This shows that not all cases of autism can be explained by
this theory, meaning that there has to be other explanations. On the other
hand, the research only tested ToM by asking a false belief question when there
are two other aspects of ToM. The 20% that answered the false belief question correctly
may fail a test of socio-communication and/or show a lack of pretend play.


Baron-Cohen, Leslie & Frith (1985) carried out research on
autistic children, typical children and children with other disorders to test
whether they had theory of mind by asking them a false belief understanding question.
To do this they explained a scenario: one child put a ball she was playing with
into a basket then leaves the room. Next, a different child moves the ball from
the basket and puts it into a box. When the first child comes back where will
she look for the ball? To demonstrate that they have ToM; participants would
have to say that the first child would look in the basket for the ball. The
results showed that 85% of typical children and 86% children with Down’s
syndrome demonstrated that they had ToM but only 20% of autistic children did.


The term ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM) was initially used in research on chimpanzees
(Premack & Woodruff, 1978). It’s defined as the ability to attribute mental
states, such as beliefs and emotions, to self and to others, and the ability to
deceive others. Individuals that don’t have ToM tend to have false-belief (when
you don’t understand that an individual’s belief about something may be
inconsistent with the truth), ineffective socio-communicative skills and a lack
of pretend play (usually in cases of autistic children).


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) doesn’t have an exact definition so
is usually characterised by its diagnostic criteria. The two main criteria
according to the American Psychiatric Association (2013) are deficits in social
communication/interaction and restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour or
interests (RRBs). It also states the prevalence of autism across the world has
increased to around 1% in recent years. There is no one cause of autism that
has been found, meaning that there are many different theories that attempt to
explain it. In this essay, I’m going to focus on how effectively three of the
dominant cognitive theories – theory of mind, executive function and weak
central coherence – can explain autism and it symptoms. The three main criteria
I’m going to be using to evaluate these theories are: universality (found in
all autistic individuals), uniqueness (found in just autism, or other disorders
too) and specificity (due to one factor not multiple).