With arise from a domain-specific factor or are multiple

prevalence rates of around 1 in 100, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a well-known
neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by persistent deficits in social
interaction and communication with restricted, repetitive patterns of
interests, behaviours or activities, according to the DSM-5 diagnostic
criteria. Kanner (1943)
first recognised autism as a unique
condition when he examined social and linguistic deficits in young children such
as Donald. T. An abundance of theories have since been proposed to explain
autistic symptoms, yet there are three undeniably key cognitive theories which
provide coherent and valid explanations of autistic symptoms, these include the
Theory of Mind, Executive Functioning Theory and Weak Central Coherence Theory.
This essay will critically evaluate and compare each of the three predominant
cognitive theories of autism through consideration of specificity; does autism
arise from a domain-specific factor or are multiple factors involved?
Uniqueness; is the factor unique to autism or is it involved in other
developmental disorders? And universality; is the factor found in every
individual with autism, or just the majority?

Alan Leslie (1987) attributes the social impairment characteristic of autism
to a metarepresentational deficit in developing children, caused by failure in
decoupling mechanisms, thereby creating difficulties in recognising mental
states and being able to engage in pretend play. Such an observation led to the
Theory of Mind (ToM) which suggests that those with autism struggle to attribute
mental states to themselves and others. Wimmer and Perner (1983) effectively devised the unexpected transfer test of false
belief to test for ToM and corresponding metarepresentational deficits in
autistic children. In a seminal study, Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Firth (1985)
used the Sally-Ann task, an adaptation
of the unexpected transfer test, to investigate whether children with autism who
do not understand the mind, also fail to acknowledge false belief. The task
involves presenting children with two dolls named Sally and Anne. Sally places
a marble in her basket before leaving the room, whereupon Anne takes the marble
and hides it inside her box. The children are then asked where Sally will look
for her marble when she returns. Results show that 80% of autistic children
failed to consider Sally’s belief of where the marble originally was. Therefore,
this suggests that such autistic children do indeed have a deficit in their
Theory of Mind as they were unable to account for Sally’s own belief about the
location of the marble.

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such an intuitive theory is susceptible to criticism, as Happé (1994)
argues that considering 20% of autistic
children passed false belief tests, ToM is not a universal deficit in those with
autism, thus weakening ToM as an explanation of autistic symptoms. Nevertheless,
(1989) responded to this issue of
universality 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 a
first-order ToM task, but they couldn’t pass a second-order task and therefore
didn’t possess a representational ToM. Zelazo et al (1996)
also critiqued ToM as they found that children with Downs Syndrome were
liable to false belief tasks beyond the age of 4. Therefore, this suggests that
deficits in ToM are not unique to autistic individuals, as
characteristics are found in those with other developmental disorders. Furthermore,
this weakens ToM as a cognitive explanation of autistic symptoms. And yet, it
is undeniable that ToM does offer a useful insight into the workings of an
autistic mind and thus can be used to help autistic children’s understanding of
other’s thoughts and feelings so to improve their perception of the world
around them. For instance, parents can use role play to encourage their child
to think about and act out other people’s perspectives, which aids in developing
their ToM.

In contrast to Theory of Mind, Executive Function
has a clearer definition which Ozonoff et al (1991)
clarifies as “the ability to maintain an appropriate problem-solving set
for attainment of a future goal” which involves behaviours such as planning,
organising and impulse control. Such behaviours have been linked to frontal
structures in the brain, like the prefrontal cortex. Ozonoff, Pennington and Rogers (1991b) sought to investigate mental inflexibility in
those with autism. They used the Wisconsin Card Sort Test whereby the
participant must sort the cards according to an unspoken rule, for instance by
colour or shape. It was found that participants with ASD were unable to shift
attentional focus and found the task difficult. In addition to the card sort, Ozonoff et al
(1991) presented tests of false belief. The findings showed that
some participants with autism passed tests of false belief, however all lacked
flexibility in thought with regards to the card sort task. Furthermore, it
could be argued that inflexibility of thought is a more reliable indicator of
autism than failure to acknowledge false beliefs.


It has been proposed that there is
a potential relationship between EF and ToM, whereby the development of
executive functions allows a child’s ToM to develop. Ozonoff (1997) found that
individuals with disorders such as OCD and ADHD perform similarly on tests of
executive function compared to those with autism. Consequently, it appears that
executive deficits are not unique to autism. Yet, unlike the afore mentioned
disorders, Ozonoff proposed that autism consists of a specific cognitive
flexibility deficit, whilst inhibition is less affected. Later research by
Ozonoff and Jensen (1999) confirmed this conclusion as they found that children
with ADHD had problems of inhibition whereas those with autism had difficulties
with task flexibility. Thus, suggesting there is a complex relationship between
EF and ToM. Additionally, it would seem that executive functions are not unique to autism as there are features present in
disorders such as ADHD. Furthermore, this weakens EF as a cognitive explanation
of autism.

EF, Weak Central Coherence Theory (WCC) is domain-general. WCC refers to the
ability to integrate information into meaningful representations, a
characteristic that autistic individuals struggle with as they tend to focus on
small details instead of the whole, Kanner
(1943). A
significant strength of WCC is that it explains both social and non-social
features of autism thus providing a broader explanation of autistic symptoms. A
characteristic of WCC is that autistic individuals focus their attention on
small details, numerous studies investigating perceptual processes, such as Shah and Firth (1983),
have shown that children with autism
tend to score higher on the Children’s Embedded Figures Test (CEST). In such a
test, participants have to locate a small target shape within a drawing of a
larger shape. Firth
(1989) suggests
that those with autism perform better on tasks such as CEST because they have a
weak central coherence and thereby lack cognitive drive to process globally.

It could be argued that WCC is a
product of cognitive inflexibility in that those with autism struggle to shift
from local to global processing, thus linking WCC with executive dysfunction.
However, Booth,
Charlton, Hughes and Happé (2003) found
that in a drawing task, both the autistic and ADHD groups displayed
difficulties in planning whereas only the autistic group displayed evidence of
WCC. Furthermore, this indicates that WCC is independent of EF in autism.
Furthermore, this suggests that WCC is unique in
it’s explanation of autistic symptoms, thus strengthening it as a valid
cognitive theory of autism. Equally, Happé’s (1999)
review suggests that WCC may have specificity as
studies show that WCC and ToM appear independent of each other. Those who
passed a ToM test were shown to have WCC in tests such as block design.

To conclude, it is apparent that the
three cognitive theories considered above are sufficient in explaining autistic
symptoms and consequently improving our understanding of such a prevalent
disorder within society. Future directions for the study of autism could
involve establishing clearer boundaries between autism and other developmental


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