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Theory of Mind Account of Autism Essay Sample

 Autism Free Essay Example

What is autism?

The answers to this question vary depending on the interests of particular individual asking this question. The main task of this essay is to bring light upon the nature of this disease with a particular emphasis on the social interaction impairments as it is explained by the theory of mind hypothesis. The wide variety of autism definitions can be explained with a spread of popular literature related to autism since the 1980s along with the scientific texts. The original definition was developed 70 years ago by Leo Kanner and it served as a ground for all the definitions that followed. Generally, the attention has been focused on behavioral, social, and linguistic aspects of this disorder. Hence, the differences in understanding of autism arise mostly from the specific characteristics of these aspects. Moreover, other atypical responses of motor, cognitive, or emotional nature and their relation to the key features of autism also affect the terms in which autism is being described.

The most widely accepted definition of autism that will also be used for the purposes of this essay is given in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-IV-TR (American Psychological Association, 2000, p.84). There are three main features that serve to define the meaning of autism: impairments of social interaction; problems with communication; repetitive and restricted activities. The complexity of this decease and the difficulties with finding the only right terms to express is indicated with the fact that autism is sometimes even classified as a syndrome due to its composite nature constituted by interdependent characteristics (Whitman, 2004, p.22).

For the purpose of defining autism, it is necessary to determine which symptoms it encompasses. According to DSM-IV-TR, in order for the individual to be diagnosed with autism he or she must experience several impairments by the age of three. The impairments of social interaction include a) inability to perceive non-verbal communication through gestures, gazes, and body postures; b) developmentally inappropriate peer relationships; c) inability of sharing one’s emotions or activities with other people; d) lack of emotional empathy. The impairments of qualitative communication include a) either absence or delays in the developments of both spoken language and non-verbal communication; b) difficulties with starting and upholding conversation with other persons; c) repetitive language usage in accordance with a developed pattern; d) inability to imitate various aspects of social interaction in make-believe play. The repetitive patterns of activity include a) strict occupation with stereotyped activity with focus or intensity above normal level; b) inability to switch to non-routine activities; c) repetitive gestures and body movements; d) focus on some particular part of the object of attention.

This essay will concentrate on the first group of autism impairments, particularly, difficulties with social interaction.  It is probably the most fundamental aspect of autism that underlies the rest of the problems associated with this disorder. Basically, each person with autism has difficulties with social communication, a crucial element of survival, unlike the healthy adults or children. It is characterized with a lack of instinctive interest towards other human beings, especially during the early stages of life. However, in its most severe forms, social interaction impairment can stay with individuals for the rest of their lives.

Most people find it possible to understand the rules of the social world and the patterns of communication. However, the level of their success may vary. The positive results can be achieved through hard intellectual work on an everyday basis. However, due to the lack of social instinct, it is still possible for other individuals to understand that the person they communicate with has certain impairments with an ability to interact. It is generally associated with the fact that people with autism are egocentric without even understanding it.

For instance, in the cases of groups of children in school despite all the intellectual efforts of an autistic child other non-impaired children will be fast to detect the difficulties with interaction. One of the possible consequences of this realization is subjecting autistic child to bullying in common classrooms. However, the negative attitude may exist not only in other children but in teachers as well. Being unable to feel the borderline of socially acceptable behavior, autistic child may act non-abidingly or disrespectfully towards a teacher. For instance, the child may innocently continue with his or her patterned activities like looking into the window despite the demands from the teacher to stop.  These actions can often be interpreted as an attack against the teacher’s authority thus leading to general difficulties in school.

Another problem that persons with autism can experience is expressing themselves with words. The major issue is sometimes the inability to understand that their words can influence the behavior of others in a variety of ways. Lorna Wing provides an example of situation when an autistic child with sufficient vocabulary and the ability to speak was locked somewhere accidentally. However, this child did not scream for help because he could not understand that this action could have had positive consequences by attracting other people’s attention (Wing, 2006, p.9). Sometimes, the issue is that even though people with autism do experience certain emotions and feelings, they simply cannot put them into words even if they have the necessary vocabulary. Thus, outsiders can have a picture of an autistic person being emotionless, cold, and highly egoistic.

The degree of severity of these symptoms is not always the same. It can substantially differ from one individual to another. This variety is being found along the so-called “social continuum,” which can be used to identify person’s ability to communicate in the social life. The concept of social continuum is already a long-standing term in the psychological science first introduced by Wing and Gould (1979). Generally, each individual is not stagnant and his or her location in the continuum changes over time, especially, when it comes to particular skills of communication.

The individuals who are placed at the severe end of continuum are described as distant and indifferent to others, even including their close friends and family. It is associated with a lack of the most fundamental skills of social interaction, which include sharing, waiting, and turn taking. Such persons will most likely not join any kind of group activity unless strongly pressured to do so. The behavior of people on the opposite side of continuum may seem quite extravert, i.e. outgoing and expressive. However, communicating with others happens in rather inelegant way, which is strongly repetitive and without any consideration of other people’s preferences and interests. Their conversations are generally one-sided, nearly repetitive monologues, in which the responses of others play no role (Dodd, 2005, p.75).

Now, what are the exact causes leading to autism and social interaction impairments in particular? There is a theory that started to develop since 1985, which is referred to as a theory of mind. Its assumption is that autism is caused by the lack of or impairment of a theory of mind of a particular individual. It means that individual is incapable of naturally understanding what other people might be having in their minds, be it either logical thoughts or emotions.

There are different explanations for the ways in which the theory of mind develops within the child over time. Social constructivists, for example, argue that it is enshrined in the “folk ways and speech practices of a culture” (Benson & Haith, 2010, p.507). Hence, by interacting with other experienced members of community, the child is able to acquire necessary knowledge and skills for processing the ideas and thoughts in the minds of others (Benson & Haith, 2010, p.507). There are several other explanations for this issues, however, the origins of theory of mind still remain unclear and are subject of extensive debate and research.

Consequently, in order for this theory to be proved several elements have to be indicated by empirical data, i.e. all persons with autism must possess certain impairments of theory of mind. On the contrary, most persons without any mental disorders or with disorders unrelated to autism must not indicate any issues with the theory of mind.

The impairment itself is built around the mental age of a person, which is particularly expressed in the behavior and social interactions. For example, a thirteen years old individual with autism is expected to show the mental age of a normal nine years old child. At the same time, individuals with other disorders would have to indicate mental age at least equal to their physical age, i.e. a five years old child must have a minimum theory of a mind reaching a normal level for other five years old children.

The first experiment that was undertaken in order to examine this hypothesis took place in 1985 (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985). There were twenty autistic children selected for this experiment between six and sixteen years. They were given a false belief test which was based on a slightly modified Wimmer and Perner’s story about cake making and chocolate. These children had to have a mental age sufficient for understanding the tasks they needed to fulfill. In general, they were expected to understand what they need to do, remember the story, and draw required conclusions. The average verbal mental age in that group was estimated as 5 ½ years, while the non-verbal was significantly higher and reaching nine years on average. All twenty children have successfully gone through the control questions. However, the results of the test itself have shown that only 20% of the children had managed to pass it. Those particular children were not different from others with respect to their physical or mental age.

The experiment was continued with regular children who performed considerably well on the test by reaching the level of 85% according to the expectations of the scientists. Then, in order to verify that the lack of theory of mind is related only to individuals with autistic disorders, the task was given to children of the same age with Down’s syndrome. Again, the results were high and even slightly higher as compared to regular children – 86%. Since the type of disorder in the last case was significantly different from the autism, it may be assumed that theory of mind has an important role in causing the symptoms of autism.

One of the main concerns raised by that research was a small percent of children that have successfully passed the test. The doubts were associated with the fact whether the lack of theory of mind is a truly universal feature of all people experiencing autistic disorder. The experiments that followed immediately after Baron-Cohen finding were published as well. They had a portion of participants with the ability to pass the theory of mind test. Still, Jill Boucher argues that the theory of mind is certainly a common characteristic of all people with autism because the results in the first experiments were “hacked out” by children (Boucher, 2008, p.145). Boucher suggests that “it is now generally considered that those high-functioning individuals who can pass false belief tasks have learned how to… effortfully work out, what other people might falsely belief” (Boucher, 2008, p.145).

Furthermore, the aspect for which the theory of mind is being extensively criticized is that even some healthy children who do not have autism experience problems with passing the false belief test. It is especially common among the children of 3 ½ years. Consecutively, the children have noticeable difficulties with their theory of mind; however, they are not being diagnosed with autism.  In this regard, based on the rules of formal logic in may be concluded that autism, and social interaction impairments in particular, cannot be explained solely by relying on the theory of mind hypothesis. The reason is that it fails to pass the specificity criterion. Moreover, the impaired theory of mind fails to shed light on the impairments of emotions understanding that are closely linked to the autistic communicative impairments. It may be the necessary element of autism but there have to be other additional factors that play the role in the development of this disorder.