Withprevalence rates of around 1 in 100, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a well-knownneurodevelopmental disorder characterised by persistent deficits in socialinteraction and communication with restricted, repetitive patterns ofinterests, behaviours or activities, according to the DSM-5 diagnosticcriteria.
Kanner (1943)first recognised autism as a uniquecondition when he examined social and linguistic deficits in young children suchas Donald. T. An abundance of theories have since been proposed to explainautistic symptoms, yet there are three undeniably key cognitive theories whichprovide coherent and valid explanations of autistic symptoms, these include theTheory of Mind, Executive Functioning Theory and Weak Central Coherence Theory.This essay will critically evaluate and compare each of the three predominantcognitive theories of autism through consideration of specificity; does autismarise from a domain-specific factor or are multiple factors involved?Uniqueness; is the factor unique to autism or is it involved in otherdevelopmental disorders? And universality; is the factor found in everyindividual with autism, or just the majority?Alan Leslie (1987) attributes the social impairment characteristic of autismto a metarepresentational deficit in developing children, caused by failure indecoupling mechanisms, thereby creating difficulties in recognising mentalstates and being able to engage in pretend play. Such an observation led to theTheory of Mind (ToM) which suggests that those with autism struggle to attributemental states to themselves and others. Wimmer and Perner (1983) effectively devised the unexpected transfer test of falsebelief to test for ToM and corresponding metarepresentational deficits inautistic children.
In a seminal study, Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Firth (1985)used the Sally-Ann task, an adaptationof the unexpected transfer test, to investigate whether children with autism whodo not understand the mind, also fail to acknowledge false belief. The taskinvolves presenting children with two dolls named Sally and Anne. Sally placesa marble in her basket before leaving the room, whereupon Anne takes the marbleand hides it inside her box. The children are then asked where Sally will lookfor her marble when she returns. Results show that 80% of autistic childrenfailed to consider Sally’s belief of where the marble originally was.
Therefore,this suggests that such autistic children do indeed have a deficit in theirTheory of Mind as they were unable to account for Sally’s own belief about thelocation of the marble.However,such an intuitive theory is susceptible to criticism, as Happé (1994)argues that considering 20% of autisticchildren passed false belief tests, ToM is not a universal deficit in those withautism, thus weakening ToM as an explanation of autistic symptoms. Nevertheless,Baron-Cohen(1989) responded to this issue ofuniversality by later proposing a second-order false belief task which saw 90%of typically developing children pass, with no autistic children passing. Thus,Baron-Cohen suggested that some autistic individuals might succeed in afirst-order ToM task, but they couldn’t pass a second-order task and thereforedidn’t possess a representational ToM.
Zelazo et al (1996)also critiqued ToM as they found that children with Downs Syndrome wereliable to false belief tasks beyond the age of 4. Therefore, this suggests thatdeficits in ToM are not unique to autistic individuals, ascharacteristics are found in those with other developmental disorders. Furthermore,this weakens ToM as a cognitive explanation of autistic symptoms. And yet, itis undeniable that ToM does offer a useful insight into the workings of anautistic mind and thus can be used to help autistic children’s understanding ofother’s thoughts and feelings so to improve their perception of the worldaround them. For instance, parents can use role play to encourage their childto think about and act out other people’s perspectives, which aids in developingtheir ToM.In contrast to Theory of Mind, Executive Functionhas a clearer definition which Ozonoff et al (1991)clarifies as “the ability to maintain an appropriate problem-solving setfor attainment of a future goal” which involves behaviours such as planning,organising and impulse control. Such behaviours have been linked to frontalstructures in the brain, like the prefrontal cortex.
Ozonoff, Pennington and Rogers (1991b) sought to investigate mental inflexibility inthose with autism. They used the Wisconsin Card Sort Test whereby theparticipant must sort the cards according to an unspoken rule, for instance bycolour or shape. It was found that participants with ASD were unable to shiftattentional focus and found the task difficult. In addition to the card sort, Ozonoff et al(1991) presented tests of false belief.
The findings showed thatsome participants with autism passed tests of false belief, however all lackedflexibility in thought with regards to the card sort task. Furthermore, itcould be argued that inflexibility of thought is a more reliable indicator ofautism than failure to acknowledge false beliefs. It has been proposed that there isa potential relationship between EF and ToM, whereby the development ofexecutive functions allows a child’s ToM to develop. Ozonoff (1997) found thatindividuals with disorders such as OCD and ADHD perform similarly on tests ofexecutive function compared to those with autism.
Consequently, it appears thatexecutive deficits are not unique to autism. Yet, unlike the afore mentioneddisorders, Ozonoff proposed that autism consists of a specific cognitiveflexibility deficit, whilst inhibition is less affected. Later research byOzonoff and Jensen (1999) confirmed this conclusion as they found that childrenwith ADHD had problems of inhibition whereas those with autism had difficultieswith task flexibility.
Thus, suggesting there is a complex relationship betweenEF and ToM. Additionally, it would seem that executive functions are not unique to autism as there are features present indisorders such as ADHD. Furthermore, this weakens EF as a cognitive explanationof autism.
LikeEF, Weak Central Coherence Theory (WCC) is domain-general. WCC refers to theability to integrate information into meaningful representations, acharacteristic that autistic individuals struggle with as they tend to focus onsmall details instead of the whole, Kanner(1943). Asignificant strength of WCC is that it explains both social and non-socialfeatures of autism thus providing a broader explanation of autistic symptoms. Acharacteristic of WCC is that autistic individuals focus their attention onsmall details, numerous studies investigating perceptual processes, such as Shah and Firth (1983),have shown that children with autismtend to score higher on the Children’s Embedded Figures Test (CEST). In such atest, participants have to locate a small target shape within a drawing of alarger shape. Firth(1989) suggeststhat those with autism perform better on tasks such as CEST because they have aweak central coherence and thereby lack cognitive drive to process globally.
It could be argued that WCC is aproduct of cognitive inflexibility in that those with autism struggle to shiftfrom local to global processing, thus linking WCC with executive dysfunction.However, Booth,Charlton, Hughes and Happé (2003) foundthat in a drawing task, both the autistic and ADHD groups displayeddifficulties in planning whereas only the autistic group displayed evidence ofWCC. Furthermore, this indicates that WCC is independent of EF in autism.Furthermore, this suggests that WCC is unique init’s explanation of autistic symptoms, thus strengthening it as a validcognitive theory of autism. Equally, Happé’s (1999)review suggests that WCC may have specificity asstudies show that WCC and ToM appear independent of each other. Those whopassed a ToM test were shown to have WCC in tests such as block design.
To conclude, it is apparent that thethree cognitive theories considered above are sufficient in explaining autisticsymptoms and consequently improving our understanding of such a prevalentdisorder within society. Future directions for the study of autism couldinvolve establishing clearer boundaries between autism and other developmentaldisorders.