Wednesday, November 9, 2011 - 0 comments

Autism : 4. Theory of Mind

by : Uta Frith

Lacking a mechanism for a theory of mind, autistic children develop quite differently from normal ones. Most children acquire more and more sophisticated social and communicative skills as they develop other cognitive abilities. For example, children learn to be aware that there are faked and genuine expressions of feeling. Similarly, they become adept at that essential aspect of human communication—reading between the lines. They learn how to produce and understand humor and irony. In sum, our ability to engage in imaginative ideas, to interpret feelings and to understand intentions beyond the literal content of speech are all accomplishments that depend ultimately on an innate cognitive mechanism. Autistic children find it difficult or impossible to achieve any of these things. We believe this is because the mechanism is faulty.

This cognitive explanation for autism is specific. As a result, it enables us to distinguish the types of situations in which the autistic person will and will not have problems. It does not precludethe existence of special assets and abilities that are independent of the innate mechanism my colleagues and I see as defective. Thus it is that autistic individuals can achieve social skills that do not involve an exchange between two minds. They can learn many useful social routines, even to the extent of sometimes camouflaging their problems. The cognitive deficit we hypothesize is also specific enough not to preclude high achievement by autistic people in such diverse activities as musical performance, artistic drawing, mathematics and memorization of facts.

It remains to be seen how best to explain the coexistence of excellent and abysmal performance by autistic people in abilities that are normally expected to go together. It is still uncertain whether there may be additional damage to emotions that prevents some autistic children from being interested in social stimuli. We have as yet little idea what to make of the single-minded, often obsessive, pursuit of certain activities. With the autistic person, it is as if a powerful integrating force—the effort to seek meaning—were missing.

Next : Explaining Autism’s Variability


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