Cognitive explanations for autism

Explanations for autism
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Cognitive explanation - lack of theory of mind, impaired executive functioning and central coherence deficit

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Lack of theory of mind - basic overview

From an early age we begin to think of mental states, but this doesn't seem to be the case with autistic individuals. The ability to attribute mental states to others, to predict what they are thinking is necessary to understand and predict their behaviour, so if this mechanism is faulty, then individuals will have problems. To investigate whether autistic children really do fail to develop a 'theory of mind' many studies have been carried out.

A theory of mind is the knowledge that others will have different beliefs than you and will think differently to you. This may be a false belief - a belief of something that isn't true. Wimmer and Perner found most children develop a theory of mind by age four. Baron-Cohen et al used the term 'mind blind' and thought this mind blindness may be why there are so many social and communicational impairments found in autism.

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Lack of Theory of mind - Baron-Cohen et al 1985

AIM- to investigate if children with autism would understand that someone else could have a different belief to their own.

METHOD- three groups of participants were tested:

o 20 autistic children aged 6-16 with a mean verbal age of 5 1/2 years

o 14 children with Down's syndrome of a similar age but a verbal ability of 3 years

o 27 'normal' children with a mean age and verbal age of 4 1/2 years

Children were tested individually and two dolls, Sally and Anne were introduced. Sally had a basket and Anne a box. Sally puts a marble in her basket and goes for a walk, and Anne plays a trick on her and puts her marble in her box. Sally returns and the child is asked the 'belief' question 'where will Sally look for her marble?.' the correct answer is 'in her basket' as sally doesnt know the marble has been moved. Three control questions were asked, naming which doll was which, reality, such as where is the marble really and memory, such as where was the marble at the beginning.

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RESULTS- the correct belief question answers: Downs syndrome - 86%, 'normal'- 85% and autistic 20%. There were no failures on the control questions.

CONCLUSION- they concluded although autistic individuals have a higher mental age, they lack a theory of mind.

EVALUATION- the experiment used dolls and the children may not have seen them as real people. Frith, however did a coin experiment involving real people and the autistic child still thought the real person would not look where they left it, but where it had been moved to.

Maybe autistic children didn't want to attribute a false belief to another person, and there was something of the cognitive demands of the task. This doesn't seem the case in Perners experiment, however.

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Lack of Theory Of Mind - Perner et al 1989

AIM- to investigate false belief in children

METHOD- to operationalise false belief, a smartie tube containing a pencil was shown to 'normal' and autistic children. They were asked what the believed was inside it and they said 'smarties' as there was no reason not to believe this. They were shown the pencil in the tube and they were then asked what their friend would believe was in the tube.

RESULTS- 4 year olds can correctly answer 'smarties' but 3 year olds and 2/3rds of the autistic children said 'pencil.' Only 1/3 of the autistic children can apply false belief to others.

CONCLUSION- 'normal' children have an understanding of false belief and what may be in the minds of others by age 4. Autistic childen don't seem to develop a theory of mind.

EVALUATION- some researchers said that children may have difficulty with the wording of the question. Lewis and Osbourne found if they asked children what their friend would think was in the tube BEFORE THE LID WAS OPENED they found autistic children as young as 3 could succeed on the task.

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Lack of theory of mind - comic strip stories

Studies have shown that children with autism find it hard in a number of tasks that require an appreciation of another's false belief. Baron -Cohen et al did a number of experiments with comic strips. Children with autism were shown a set of 4 pictures each which made a story. There were 3 types of story- a mechanical story (as it didn't involve any people) a behavioural story which included people but didn't require understanding of what the characters were thinking and a mentalistic story that requires an understanding of the charecter's beliefs.

The children were given the pictures mixed up and had to rearrange them. Children with autism had no matter putting the behavioural and mechanical stories in sequence, but we're very poor at the mentalistic stories, staying what they could see and not what the charecters were feeling.

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Evaluation of theory of mind

o a proportion of children with autism DID succeed on the false belief tasks, and this lack of universitaity weakens the explanation that autistic children are unable to understand minds. Although there is a small proportion who succeed, however, they usually fail on the second belief task of a third person, so they can't have a profound understanding of minds.

o It is not clear whether lack of theory of mind is a symptom or cause of autism

o A failure to understand other's beliefs could make it difficult to interpret people and the environment, which could be the classic autistic symptoms of social defiects and insistence of routine and sameness.

o the finding of this lack of theory of mind has stimulated alot of new research but at present, the lack of theory of mind tells us little of some specific defects and abilities autistic individuals possess, such as Echolalia and islets of ability

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Central coherence deficit- basic overview

Central coherence is the tendency humans possess to process info for general meaning rather than focusing on the individual elements. In normal cognitive systems, it's vital to have coherence in a range of contexts - such as looking at a painting as a whole, and getting the gist of a message rather than focusing on each individual word and (like Sheldon from the BigBangTheory) we tend to slot this meaning into a particular context. according to Frith, it is this coherence that is missing in Autistic children.

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Central coherence- the theory of impaired central

o This theory would explain why Autistic people focus on details rather than global meaning. This is shown in how autistic individuals exceed so well in embedded figure tests. Such tasks are difficult for 'normal' people as they have a drive towards central coherence, which is what Frith stated was ' a central cohesive force' which was natural and useful in the cognitive system. This is weaker in autistic individuals which is bad in social situations but proves beneficial in some tasks, such as embedded figures.

o the superior rote memory often found in autistic people which involves the learning of individual items, and autistic people can often recall separate words as well as sentences.

o Research by Happe(1996) found individuals with autism are much better at interpreting visual illusions than normal individuals as they do not look at shapes in the holistic way that leads to illusions. An example is the Ebbinghaus illusion

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Central coherence - Shah and Frith 1993

AIM - to research how well autistic children could locate hidden figures

METHOD- using a standardised test, the children's embedded figures test, a group of autistic and non - autistic children had to locate a small target shape what was located in a larger drawing.

RESULTS- autistic children were faster and more accurate at locating the hidden shape than normal children at the same age.

CONCLUSION- autistic children seem to have the ability to disregard context and do not succumb to the central coherence 'force' experienced by non-autistic children. Children with autism seem to have weak central coherence.

EVALUATION- the superior performance of autistic children on the embedded figures test may be due to central coherence, however there are other explanations for such experimental findings, such as superior low level processing.

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Central coherence and theory of mind

Central coherence is different for individuals - is best viewed as a continunum where some have a strong force to process info as a whole (strong central coherence) or a weak force and tend to focus on individual elements (weak central coherence.) weak central coherence is particularly evident in autistic children.

Jarrold et al (2000) investigated the relationship between lack of theory of mind and weak central coherence in children with autism. They found a positive correlation between poor theory of mind and weak central coherence, in children with and without autism. They concluded there is a relationship between theory of mind and weak central coherence. This supports the idea of central coherence being a continunum with even individual differences in people with autism.

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Evaluation of Central Coherence deficit

o Weak central coherence may explain some of the exceptional abilities shown by SAVANTS who show great attention to detail.

o Support of Happe's view has been found in studies of normal relatives of autistic boys, where 50% of fathers showed weak coherence, although not autistic, so it is down to individual differences.

o It's unclear whether attention to detail is due to weak central coherence or better explained by something else, such as superior low level processing. A number of recent studies have shown autistic children have trouble in making generalisations. Such difficulties may be due to superior low level processing, or inferior high level processing.

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Impaired executive functioning - basic overview

Cognitive neuroscience studies the control of actions through executive systems. Executive systems are needed for higher level processes, such as multi tasking, changing plan and over-riding automatic behaviour. All these types of high-order functions are impaired in autistic individuals who engage in routine, difficulty with change and ritualised behaviours. To explain these difficulties, the impaired executive functioning theory was proposed.

Without a functioning executive, individuals can't call on the system to do necessary higher level processing thats required when engaging with people and the environment.

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Impaired executive functioning - biological aspect

Patients with frontal lobe damage also show impairments of executive functions but not in routine tasks, making researchers believe the frontal lobe enables higher level cognitive functions. There is converging evidence that areas of the frontal lobe are responsible for some cognitive deficits found in autistic individuals who have problems In executive functioning.

Recent studies in neuroimaging have also found that the frontal cortex is linked to autistic individuals, eg, onishi et al (2000) and such biological findings complement the cognitive theories that are emerging.

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Impaired executive functioning - Wisconsin card so

Experiments used to investigate difficulties autistic individuals have with higher mental processing include the Wisconsin card sorting task. This is a pack of cards that can be sorted into colour, shape or number ect.
The individual chooses a sorting ask (eg, colour) and is rewarded for the sorting, but then,unknowingly to the individual, the sorting task is changed and rewards are given if the individual sorts these cards (eg, shape.) people with high executive functioning will quickly realise the change and switch task. Autistic individuals cannot switch task and preserve with the same, old task. A critical control system of the brain (executive functioning) has malfunctioned.

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Evaluation of impaired executive functioning

o Executive functioning impairments can explain some features that theory of mind can't so can complement other cognitive explanations.
o Frith (1996) has found it unlikely that one cognitive explanation could explain all cognitive deficits found in autistic people, and executive function can combine with other theories to give an overall picture.
o Additionally, Frith believes that cognitive and biological explanations will complement each other to give a better understanding of the cognitive deficits manifested in autistic individuals. This complementary evidence is beginning to emerge.

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