A Perspective on Psychological Theories of Autism

Clinicians have proposed different psychological theories to explain mental illness from the perspective of the mind. Some of them are imaginative explanations of facts that have not or can’t be explained neurobiologically.  Ultimately such explanations blur the line between cause and effect.  Unsurprisingly, the number of psychological theories about a condition is a direct reflection of how little is known about its etiology.  When little is known about a condition, theories proliferate, become grouped, and are publicized as new developments.  Theories, stemming from this perspective, are difficult to falsify.  Are they dogma or scientific explanations?  In psychology, the more compelling the description, the more persistent is the underlying presumption. Moreover, psychological explanations have become a fair game for the opinion of anybody who is willing to espouse a trendy name, e.g., refrigerator mothers, catch 22.  These theories are not the end of psychoanalytic ruminations but rather represent a return to the same.

One could not argue, however, that only the biological perspective is correct or that it has escaped neuroscientific inquiry unscathed. The lack of reproducible findings has allowed for a proliferation of biological theories. In this regard, neuropathology echoes Dostoyevsky’s unsettling remark that if there is no God, then everything is allowed. If we do not have pathology, we should favorably consider every inquiry and every result. Unfortunately this approach preserved falsehoods by building tale upon tale. Maybe finding pathology for autism is akin to existential horror. Finding pathology would locate the workings of minds in the brain.  This approach leads to the astonishing hypothesis that “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules”. This undermines the human tendency to flatter themselves, to assert their uniqueness. Desmond Morris once said that we tend to think of ourselves as fallen angels, not risen apes.

Core deficits are now defined in terms of information processing impairment. At present, there is enough scientific evidence to accord the status of “theory” to three different psychological conjectures on autism: deficits in theory of mind, executive function, and central coherence. First, deficits in theory of mind can be seen as an exaggeration of gender based differences that are seemingly hard-wired to our brain. Asperger was the first brave soul to suggest that this syndrome was the extreme of the male personality.  Simon Baron-Cohen has publicized this theory based on his own pioneering research spanning the spectrum from gossip to aggression, from evolution to everyday life, and from brain sciences to theory of mind.  These differences reflect the way we systemize and develop empathy.  Second, executive functions have a locus within the prefrontal cortex. Experimental work by Goldman-Rakic indicates that, according to the anatomical area involved, the frontal lobe exhibits different working-memory domains. Visuospatial processing is performed by the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Working memory for the features of objects and faces occurs in the more lateral and inferior cortices, while semantic encoding and retrieval involves still more inferior and insular regions.  It is easy to envision how a defect in working memory/executive functions can provide for abnormalities in language, thinking, and behavior. Lastly, central coherence is analogous to the binding phenomena studies in neurosciences. Weak central coherence, a pattern typical of autism, is a cognitive style that emphasizes low-level features in lieu of high-level integrative processing.  Higher level integrative processing appears to be mediated by the synchronization of neuronal discharges on high- (gamma) frequency EEG.  Unsurprisingly, investigators have recently reported a disorder of binding related gamma EEG oscillatory activity I autism.

It is noteworthy that Shakow, working in the 1930’s and 40’s, generated a segmental set theory that seemingly joined both executive functions and central coherence.  His theory stated that in order to successfully perform daily activities one needs to break down activities into segments while retaining the big picture or set. In some conditions, the big picture is easily lost. The underlying deficit appears related to hemispheric, rather than global function.  The right hemisphere interprets global patterns while the left hemisphere infers details of stimuli.

Without hard evidence in terms of neuropathology psychological theories are too malleable, confluent, and easy to paint themselves into a corner. Most psychological theories offer nothing more than common sense.  It has been the failure of psychologists not to pursue their theories with neurobiological techniques.  Thus far they all remain unidimensional and only offer the perspective of the people that developed them.

5 responses to “A Perspective on Psychological Theories of Autism

  1. The only true psychological theorie of autism which is also true in neuroscientific findings are the following:

    Innovations in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology have allowed the structure of autistic brains to be compared to that of a neurotypical brain. This is pretty exciting because it demonstrates some key differences. Before I get to talking about what those differences might be specifically, let me explain briefly the technology which allows these differences to be detected.

    The technology used to perform these measurements is called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). This technique allows measurement of the anisotropy of tissues. What does this mean? In human tissues, there are often patterns whereby tissues have individual fibres which tend to travel in a parallel direction next to one another. This is common in muscle fibres and oftentimes in certain areas of the brain known as white matter.

    A good analogy to understand this concept would be looking at the internal structure of a tree. There is a grain to the wood which travels in a certain direction. Alternatively, perhaps a more apt analogy for the brain would be to look at a bundle of cables which are all grouped together and travelling from one location to another. The brain has many bundles of this sort in the white matter deep within the centre of the brain.

    Let’s compare the brain to a computer network. The brain has grey matter on the surface which is analogous to a bunch of computers. There is white matter beneath the surface which contains numerous long strands of neural fibre, called axons. These axons connect one part of the grey matter to another part to relay information. So this would be like the network cables which connect individual computers together.

    In a neurotypical brain there are generally many connections all bundled together between specific parts of the brain. Individual parts of the grey matter tend to activate when performing specific human functions, such as using language, or mathematics and logic etc. This allows different parts of the brain to specialize in certain types of computations. Because of this, medical science has been focussing on examining these individual parts separately to determine their specific function.

    What the new studies have shown, however, is that in an autistic brain, the typical bundles of axons which connect specific parts of the brain are not laid out in the usual way that is expected to be seen in a neurotypical brain. So where a neurotypical brain has thick bundles of neural axon fibres connecting certain parts to one another, the autistic brain does not have these. The connections tend to be scattered to a lot of different areas simultaneously.

    What some have hypothesized this to mean is that the autistic brain is less well connected compared to a neurotypical brain. This is true to an extent, but I believe an important upshot of this fact has been completely overlooked.

    Consider a specific area of the brain, for instance Broca’s area which controls a person’s ability to speak. The connections in a neurotypical brain to this area tend to be mostly to and from the Wernicke area which allows these two specific areas to collaborate and perform their language functions while leaving the rest of the brain to perform other tasks. In an autistic brain however, the connections to Broca’s area are spread out to many different areas of the brain, rather than being primarily to the Wernicke area. This means that in order to engage in speaking, an autistic needs to engage his entire set of cognitive resources. This makes it difficult to focus on other things simultaneously, like the visual field, hearing or other senses. This makes perfect sense, considering that autistics find it very difficult to pick up non-verbal cues when they speak.

    There is a benefit to having interconnections to many different areas of the brain instead of just between two specific ones. For instance, when an autistic focuses on performing a certain specific cognitive task, he will be engaging more grey matter resources simultaneously than a neurotypical can. As a result, he will appear to be more proficient at the task and be able to contemplate more aspects about that task simultaneously than a neurotypical could. The neurotypical may be using only the Broca and Wernicke areas to speak, but the autistic is using more cognitive resources to perform the same task. So his pronunciation, grammar and proper use of dictionary definitions tend to be far more precise than most neurotypicals of similar intelligence.


  2. Pingback: End of the year summary | Cortical Chauvinism·

  3. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-imprinted-brain/201608/autistics-undomesticated-humans

    Also an article claiming schizophrenia is a overdomesticated human is at the bottom. I really have no clue what they hope to achieve in treatments or therapies. Also the article emphasises facial and bodily differences for both ignoring syndromic or indirect causes and ignoring that the physical features usually cluster in patients, and they prefer to say atavism instead of the growing evidence of the neuropathology. I have no clue what they hope to achieve other than selling books and fame. It doesn’t seem they create these to help. Why don’t they create a theory for Alzheimer’s? Are they justifying animal models saying we can derive accurate models from behaviour alone? That the behaviours which are not enough domestication cause autism than autism causing resembling symptoms? I feel frustrated with physcologists sometimes.

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