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Autism and Theory of Mind: Possibly Another Way to Understand Autism

Autism mind

Being able to reach a reasonable conclusion of the internal states of others is called mentalization and is critical for successful social interactions. The main components of this system are the medial prefrontal cortex and the temporal-parietal junction. These areas show similar patterns during both the performance and observations of actions. People with autism have trouble mentalizing. This is important as difficulties with this in adults with autism; this is evident in tasks involving action processing. In addition, this issue can impair the understanding of the social intentions of others and this can lead to inappropriate social decisions. These decisions then can lead to maltreatment by others. This study was done to see if there was connectivity between regions of mentalization system when inferring the social intention of others from their actions. Adults with autism are significantly impaired on tasks that involve integrating information regarding others’ intended states with the surrounding context.


Theory of mind is complex and involves multiple neural-processes. A team has now developed a new test that looks at the components and found that autistic people have disproportionate difficulties understanding point-of-view of others. It is hoped that this work may lead to a better understanding of autism itself. Autism is not just a single thing. The new study developed a new method assessment of the test takers ability to follow all of the instructions about a given situation. Autistics faltered at abstract parts of the test. This study shows this assessment tool can help with providing personalized treatment to both children with autism and adults with the same disorder (Dajose, 2019).

Theory of the mind
Despite thousands of studies discussing the theory of the mind, it is still unclear what individual differences in the ability represent. Therefore explanations for individual differences have been limited to the psychological processes involved in the representation of mental states. So explanations for these differences have been limited to domain-general processes like language or executive function. Theory of mind tends to test the ability of the individual to make accurate mental state conclusions based on evidence and reasoning.

Without a theoretical framework to address variance in other minds and their representation, individual differences in theory of mind will remain limited to domain-general abilities rather than the quality of domain-specific content in an effort to have specific accurate mental state representation.

This study sought to address an impasse in the theory of mind literature. Findings like one’s own ethnicity bias and adaptation seen in faces would explain much about how inter-group conflict may be generated. In addition, some social difficulties encountered by people diagnosed with psychiatric conditions may be caused by a failure of typical individuals to be able to develop an accurate model of atypical minds (Conway et al, 2019).

The challenge that is autism
Many studies done on autism have shown difficulties with communication and social interaction that persists across multiple contexts. This issue can cause daily difficulties becoming more pronounced as the autistic person ages. These impairments can b3e expressed as inappropriate affect, social isolation, and failure to initiate interactions with peers, cooperate, share, make friends, express empathy or provide emotional support.

Social difficulties of people with autism spectrum disorder with cognitive impairment have been dedicated to the study of socialization impairments. And even if they are able to learn the theory of communication they are seldom able to apply it to their everyday life. This study was to achieve more knowledge about socialization deficits of autistic individuals. And it illustrated the importance of the theory of mind in the development of social skills in individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

The study did acknowledge the limitation of the results due to the low number of participants in their study. In addition, they found testing vocabulary alone to eliminate this, in the final analysis, is insufficient when studying an individual’s ability to understand language in context in people with autism. There is an increased need of adopting multi-component programs to provide a more accurate picture of individuals with autism (Berenguer et al, 2018).

Autism encompasses a range of neurodevelopmental disorders including deficits in social interaction, communication and non-social factors such as restricted and stereotypical behaviors. It poses great challenges for individuals and for caregivers, families, impacting ability to participate in standardized education, to have peer interactions, to hold employment and thus greatly influence their basic quality of life. And because of improved screening, the CDC has said one out of 68 children have autism spectrum disorder. The issue that continues, the actual causes and neurobiological basis of autism remain under debate. Recent studies using such tools as EEGs (electroencephalography) have identified dysfunctional areas of the brain that deal with executive function, social cognition/theory of mind, as potential pathological substrates underlying autism. Their studies found that there was a dysfunction in the frontotemporal cortices and atypical connectivity. Few studies have focused on the neural features of autism. Their method of neuroimaging, while still in its infancy does provide a basis for further studies and research (Liu et al, 2018).

Theory of Mind and autism
Theory of mind is defined as the process of taking another’s perspective. Anthropomorphism is seen as attributing human characteristics to animals. It has been found in studies that people with autism spectrum disorder identify with animals more closely than other humans. One reason this is seen among those with autism is that those with the disorder perceive non-humans behaving both intentionally and unpredictably. Humans, on the other hand, are governed by a complex system of non-observable cognitions, beliefs, and motivations. Humanizing the behavior of non-humans is a pathway to understanding an entities intention. In autism spectrum disorder, those affected have atypical social and communicative styles, restrictive repetitive behaviors and interests.

Research has indicated adults with autism spectrum disorder have shown to experience an increased rate of loneliness, depression, and anxiety. In addition deficits in theory of mind have been shown to persist throughout and correspond heavily to autism spectrum disorder severity. And individuals with this have shown markedly less eye contact than counterparts with normal development. Because eyes are the most communicative of mental states, it may be one reason autistic people suffer in social situations. Processing of mental states is a complex, multi-faceted procedure that requires input in order to elicit theory of mind information. Those with autism struggle with this and processing impairments may play a significant role in this disruption (Atherton & Cross, 2018).

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Recently, it has been proposed that some people with autism spectrum disorder can compensate for their underlying difficulties thus displaying a few behavioral symptoms despite their core cognitive deficits. Autism spectrum disorder is characterized by social communication impairments. The phenomenon of compensation may actually be their attempt at camouflage. This condition refers to someone who modifies their behavior to blend in with their peers. This could be like suppressing repetitive behavior or dressing like their fellow students. This, unfortunately, has led to autistic patients having a perceived ability that is substantially better than their actual ability.

This study showed that in some people with autism spectrum disorder employ compensation to improve behavioral presentation despite core cognitive deficits. The study suggests that IQ, executive function and anxiety are implicated in the process of compensation of theory of mind difficulties in autism spectrum disorder. It also found that further research, including a longitudinal approach, should be done in an effort to delineate the exact nature of compensatory mechanism so that clinical relevance of this concept to understanding this in autism spectrum disorder can be appreciated (Livingston et al, 2019).

The impact of autism spectrum disorder on people can be very dissimilar; some can live independently others require life-long care and support. According to DSM-5 manual of mental disorders (as revised in 2013), symptoms must appear during childhood to be considered as autism. Most individuals so affected are otherwise healthy while for some autism is associated with other disorders. The spectrum is large and among patients, a full range of mental abilities and communication skills can be observed. Evaluations of cognitive functions have shown deficits in inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and working memory. They also have been found to have difficulties in inputting mental states such as beliefs, desires, intentions, emotions etc to others (Demarquoy & Demarquoy, 2019).

Work Cited
Atherton, G. & Cross, L. (2018). Seeing more than human: Autism and anthropomorphic theory of mind. Frontiers in Psychology, 9(528).

Berenguer, C. et al. (2017). Contribution of theory of mind, executive functioning, and pragmatic competency to socialization behaviors with high functioning autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 48 (2).

Cole, E.J., Barraclough, N.E., & Andrews, T.J. (2019). Reduced connectivity between mentalizing and mirror systems in autism spectrum condition. Neuropsychologia-International Journal in Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience.

Conway, J.R., Catmur. C. & Bird, G. (2019). Understanding individual differences in theory of mind via representation of minds, not mental states. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

Dajose, L. (2019). Autism and theory of mind. CalTech Associates.

Dermaquoy, C. & Demarquoy, J. (2019). Autism and carnitine: A possible link. World Journal of Biological Chemistry, 10(1).

Liu, T. et al. (2018). Assessing autism at its social and developmental roots: A review of Autism Spectrum Disorder studies using functional near-infrared spectroscopy. NeuroImage.

Livingston, L.A. et al. (2019). Good social skills despite poor theory of mind: Exploring compensation in autistic spectrum disorder. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 60(1). https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/jcpp.12886