All three of these cognitive theories have some explanatory powerover ASD and the symptoms of ASD. However, none of them can explain all of thesymptoms that an autistic individual may exhibit. This shows that none of thetheories, individually, can fully explain autism so are not domain-specific. Dueto this, I think that the future direction of research should shift, and study combinationsof theories (that share a link) as one explanation: for example, executive functionand theory of mind. Another diagnostic criterion of ASD is having difficulty participatingin effective social communication/interactions (American PsychiatricAssociation, 2013).
Weak central coherence can explain some problems thatcommonly contribute to this difficulty. For example, when communicating withsomeone, individuals with autism focus on the, sometimes insignificant, detailsrather than understanding the broader meaning and context. Similarly to theother theories, this too cannot fully explain autism and all its symptoms. Shah & Frith (1983) used the Embedded Figures test on autisticchildren to investigate the weak central coherence theory. This test involvedshowing the participant a complex design then tasking them with finding thesimple shape within this design. The finding showed that autistic children weremore accurate and performed at a higher mental age than their own. This demonstratedthat some symptoms of autism can be seen a superior skill rather than adisadvantage. Frith (1989) characterised central coherence, the integration ofinformation to give it a higher-level of meaning, as typical informationprocessing.
It’s described as ‘typical’ because it is in the centre of a normaldistribution continuum. Individuals with autism classically have weak centralcoherence. This means that they see the basic individual parts of somethingbefore they see a whole (Kanner, 1943), whereas typical people usually see the’bigger picture’ (eg. context and meaning). Having a weak central coherence isseen as an attention bias rather than a deficit. Executive functions and theory of mind have an intricaterelationship as it been suggested that the development of theory of mind isdependent on the development of executive functions (Ozonoff, Pennington , 1991). If that were correct then it would mean that theory of mindcould be classed as an executive function which could then lead to the argumentthat the theory of mind theory is not separate and should be integrated theexecutive functions theory.
Unlike the theory of mind theory of autism, this theory can explainRRBs. For example, one common RRB is the need to have sameness and routines andany attempt to shift from the routines is usually meet with severe distress. Anexplanation of this could be a lack of mental flexibility, which is anexecutive function. Executive dysfunction is not unique to ASD, there are lots ofdisorders that appear to have executive functioning problems as a cause.
For example,some ADHD symptoms, like inattention, have been linked to executive functiondeficits (Thorell, 2007). This means that executive dysfunction is not likelyto 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 thesedisorders or they wouldn’t be classified as different. Also, if both disorders arelinked to EF deficits it could mean that there is likely to be co-morbidity of thedisorders. Ozonoff, Pennington & Rogers (1991) used the Wisconsin Card SortTask to study executive functioning. This task involves sorting cards into oneof the three categories: colour, number or shape.
The participants are not toldthe rule/category of sorting. When the participant has sorted the cards theexperimenter gives feedback in the form of ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’. If theyare incorrect they try again until they are correct and if they are told correctthen the rule is changed without the knowledge of the participant and they areasked to sort the cards again. A failure to change to a new sorting category atthis point would be seen as a preservative error.
The findings showed thatparticipants with autism didn’t change focus and were unwilling to shift fromthe established system of sorting the cards. This sorting task is designed totest whether participants can adapt thinking from an old situation to a new one(mental flexibility). Executive functions (EF) give individuals the ability to carry outprocesses/behaviours that are appropriate for the achievement of a future goal.These behaviours, which are usually associated with frontal structures of thebrain, include: planning, organisation, working memory, impulse control andmental flexibility. People with autism have been found to have executivefunctioning problems. The theory of mind theory does explain autistic symptoms.
For example,one diagnostic criterion for autism is having a deficit in social and emotionalreciprocity (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). This means that autisticchildren have trouble understanding that their behaviour has an effect onothers. They also often act inappropriately to the emotional expressions ofothers as they presume that what they are thinking and feeling is what othersare too. This links back to autistic children having false-belief as thinkingthat everyone has the same thoughts and emotions to you is inconsistent withreality. However, this theory doesn’texplain all symptoms of autism. One of the symptoms left unexplained by thistheory is RRBs. This suggests that this theory cannot fully explain autism andtherefore needs more information to do so.
The solution to this problem couldbe to combine complementary explanations. The theory of mind theory of autism is not universal to allindividuals with ASD. The results of the research from Baron-Cohen, Leslie& Frith (1985) show that the majority of autistic children don’t havetheory of mind. However, 20% of the autistic children that took part in thestudy showed that they have theory of mind by answering the false beliefquestion correctly. This shows that not all cases of autism can be explained bythis theory, meaning that there has to be other explanations. On the otherhand, the research only tested ToM by asking a false belief question when thereare two other aspects of ToM. The 20% that answered the false belief question correctlymay fail a test of socio-communication and/or show a lack of pretend play. Baron-Cohen, Leslie & Frith (1985) carried out research onautistic children, typical children and children with other disorders to testwhether 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 withinto a basket then leaves the room. Next, a different child moves the ball fromthe basket and puts it into a box. When the first child comes back where willshe look for the ball? To demonstrate that they have ToM; participants wouldhave to say that the first child would look in the basket for the ball. Theresults showed that 85% of typical children and 86% children with Down’ssyndrome 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 mentalstates, such as beliefs and emotions, to self and to others, and the ability todeceive others.
Individuals that don’t have ToM tend to have false-belief (whenyou don’t understand that an individual’s belief about something may beinconsistent with the truth), ineffective socio-communicative skills and a lackof pretend play (usually in cases of autistic children). Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) doesn’t have an exact definition sois usually characterised by its diagnostic criteria. The two main criteriaaccording to the American Psychiatric Association (2013) are deficits in socialcommunication/interaction and restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour orinterests (RRBs). It also states the prevalence of autism across the world hasincreased to around 1% in recent years.
There is no one cause of autism thathas been found, meaning that there are many different theories that attempt toexplain it. In this essay, I’m going to focus on how effectively three of thedominant cognitive theories – theory of mind, executive function and weakcentral coherence – can explain autism and it symptoms. The three main criteriaI’m going to be using to evaluate these theories are: universality (found inall autistic individuals), uniqueness (found in just autism, or other disorderstoo) and specificity (due to one factor not multiple).