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Psychological Theories on Autism - Dictionary of Arguments

Slater I 148
Autism/psychological theories: Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are characterized by a triad of symptoms: impaired social development, impaired communication skills and a narrow repertoire of interests and activities. Over the last three decades, a number of theories have been put forward to explain this unique combination of impairments.
Kanner: The disease was first described in 1943 by child psychiatrist Leo Kanner who reported the case of 11 children presenting a combination of symptoms that was unique enough to call it a separate syndrome: the fundamental disorder, he explained, “is the children’s inability to relate themselves in the ordinary way to people and situations from the beginning of life” (Kanner, 1943)(1).
Asperger: Hans Asperger reported a similar condition in a group of four children observed in his Vienna practice and concluded his paper in similar ways to Kanner: “the fundamental disorder of autistic individuals” he argued, “is the limitation of their social relationships” (Asperger, 1944)(2).
Slater I 150
Autism/psychological theories: the hypothesis, of a lack of theory of mind (ToM; >Theory of Mind/Premack/Woodruff, >Theory of Mind/Dennett: “How does one demonstrate that an individual has the capacity to conceive mental states?”) in autism has had a significant impact on the way cognitive researchers view the architecture of the mind
Slater I 151
and it has been taken as strong support for the idea that the human brain is equipped with a ToM (Theory of Mind) module. In fact, following Baron-Cohen et al.’s (1985)(3) findings, autism soon became a test case for many theories of typical development where the ToM module is thought to play a central role (see e.g., Frith & Happé, 1995(4); Happé, 1993(5)). >False-Belief Task/Happé.
The “mindblindness” hypothesis prompted an enormous amount of research designed to assess the scope of the theory and to derive further predictions from it.
Happé/Frith: (Happé and Frith 1995)(4) the model put forward by Baron-Cohen et al. (1985)(1) is useful to the study of child development (…) because it allowed for a systematic approach to the impaired and unimpaired social and communicative behavior of people with autism. >VsBaron-Cohen.
Slater I 152
Two important cognitive accounts of non-social deficits in ASDs, which have been mainly construed as compatible with the ToM account but offer additional explanatory power, were put forward. These are:
1) the executive dysfunction hypothesis, referring to a difficulty in planning how to achieve a goal and a tendency to become fixated on one activity or object, which accounts more specifically for the stereotypes (including repetitive and stereotyped motor activities), planning difficulties, and impulsiveness (Ozonoff, Pennington, & Rogers, 1991(6)) often found in the condition; and
2) Weak Central Coherence, (a difficulty in combining several pieces of information to form an overall understanding of an issue), which provides an interesting account for the peaks of abilities observed in tasks requiring detail-focused rather than holistic processing (Frith & Happé, 1995(4); Happé, 1999(7)).
Slater I 153
It has been argued that autism ought to be tackled by a multiple-deficit approach and that “it is time to give up on a single explanation for autism” (Happé, Ronald,
& Plomin, 2006(8); see also Pennington, 2006(9)). Construed within this multiple deficit framework, neither the fact that ToM deficits can be found in other conditions, nor the fact that ToM deficits do not explain the third element of the triad

1) The ToM account does not provide a full account auf autism.
2) ToM deficits are not specific to autism,
3) ToM deficits are not universal in autism;

(or, for that matter, many other features of autism like motor clumsiness, sensory sensitivities, and so on) are relevant to assess the validity of the account.

1. Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nervous Child, 2, 217—2 50.
2. Asperger, H. (1944). Die “Autistischen Psychopathen” im Kindesalter. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 117,76—136.
3. Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind.” Cognition, 21, 13—125.
4. Frith, U., & Happé, F. (1995). Autism: Beyond ‘theory of mind.” In: J. Mehler& S. Franck (Eds), Cognition on cognition (pp. 13—30). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
5. Happé, F. (1993). Communicative competence and theory of mind in autism: A test of relevance theory. Cognition, 48, 101—119.
6. Ozonoff, S., Pennington, B. F., & Rogers, S. J. (1991). Executive function deficits in high-functioning autistic individuals: Relationship to theory of mind. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 32, 1081—1105.
7. Happé, F. (1999). Autism: cognitive deficit or cognitive style? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3, 216— 222.
8. Happé, F., Ronald, A., & Plomin, R. (2006). Time to give up on a single explanation for autism. Nature Neuroscience, 9, 1218—1220.
9. Pennington, B. F. (2006). From single to multiple deficit models of developmental disorders. Cognition, 101,385—413.

Coralie Chevallier, “Theory of Mind and Autism. Beyond Baron-Cohen et al’s. Sally-Anne Study”, in: Alan M. Slater and Paul C. Quinn (eds.) 2012. Developmental Psychology. Revisiting the Classic Studies. London: Sage Publications

Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments
The note [Concept/Author], [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] resp. "problem:"/"solution:", "old:"/"new:" and "thesis:" is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Psychological Theories
Slater I
Alan M. Slater
Paul C. Quinn
Developmental Psychology. Revisiting the Classic Studies London 2012

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Ed. Martin Schulz, access date 2022-06-30
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