Cognitive Theories Explaining ASD

tags: Interactive Autism Network (IAN)

Theory of Mind and Autism

In his 1995 book, "Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind," 1  Simon Baron-Cohen* explored what has become one of the central theoretical concepts of autism: theory of mind.

Baron-Cohen proposed that children with autism suffer from mindblindness. Already hampered by the inability to achieve joint attention with others, they become unable to build on that fundamental step to intuit what others are thinking, perceiving, intending, or believing. They become “blind” to others’ mental states.

Typical humans “mind read” easily and naturally. They are not psychic; they are simply wired from birth to quickly acquire the ability to make a good guess at what others are thinking or planning. This is essential for beings who are not only social creatures, but who have the potential to be each other’s predators. The ability to discern whether another human is friend or foe is necessary to survival. Is the person approaching with that bat going to ask me to play ball or smash my skull in with it? Instant judgments must be made, and action taken. To lack this ability, to be blind to others’ intentions or beliefs, is to be at a terrible disadvantage.

*Simon Baron-Cohen is a Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow at Trinity College, also in Cambridge. In addition, he is Director of the nearby Autism Research Centre.

The Extreme Male Brain Theory

In 2002, Simon Baron-Cohen expanded on his mindblindness theory by weaving in another concept: empathy. He described two brain “types”: an empathizing, female brain (which, on average, more women would have) and a systemizing, male brain (which, on average, more men would have).

“Empathizing,” he wrote, “is the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion. Empathizing allows you to predict a person’s behavior, and to care about how others feel.” 2  Systemizing, on the other hand, is “the drive to analyze the variables in a system, to derive the underlying rules that govern the behavior of a system… Systemizing allows you to predict the behavior of a system –rather than human beings-- and to control it.” 3

A very balanced person would possess these abilities in equal measure, with the average man leaning more heavily on the side of systemizing, and the average woman leaning more heavily on the side of empathizing. People with autism spectrum disorders, in contrast, are viewed as lacking to an astounding degree the ability to empathize –to read via expression, body language, actions, and words emotions, intentions, and perceptions. This builds on the mindblindness concept by including a more specific emotional aspect. A person with an ASD has trouble reading not just thoughts, but feelings.

Although people with ASDs lack a strong empathic sense, they are viewed in this framework as incredible systemizers. They possess an extreme male brain. Because of this, their deficits will be in the realm of intuiting other humans’ mental states and feelings, and predicting or manipulating their behavior. They will be good, on the other hand, at evaluating non-human systems, such as machines, scientific phenomena, or a collection of objects, down to the lowest level of detail. The extent to which they are “hyper-systemizers” will vary with level of functioning. The more disabled they are, the less able they will be able to adapt to or interact with systems that are not 100% predictable. A very low functioning individual may line up objects in the same order again and again; a higher functioning individual may program computers.

Understanding and controlling human systems depends upon a rapid-fire ability to adapt to barely predictable, infinitely variable human actions. Because they are hyper-systemizers, best able to cope with logical, lawful systems and not with systems of “high variance or change (such as the social world of other minds),” 4  people with ASDs become resistant to change, clinging to routine and all that is predictable for dear life.

Central Coherence Theory

In 1989, Uta Frith* proposed the Weak Central Coherence Theory of autism.5 “Central coherence” was the term given to a human being’s ability to derive overall meaning from a mass of details. A person with strong central coherence, looking at an endless expanse of trees, would see “the forest.” A person with weak central coherence would see only a whole lot of individual trees.

It was Frith’s belief that other theories might account for the core deficits of individuals with ASDs, but could not account for their amazing strengths. For instance, some individuals with ASDs have “savant” skills –a remarkable ability in areas such as music, memory, or calculation. People on the spectrum tend to excel at focusing on extreme detail, and so are able to pick out a tiny element from a mass of complex data or objects. The notion of “weak central coherence” could explain both deficits and strengths. When a task required a person to extract global meaning from many details, to get the “big picture”, people with ASDs would be at a major disadvantage. When picking out extreme detail from surrounding masses of information was required, people with ASDs would be in a position to shine. They would be good at parts, but not at wholes.

Frith, who calls this “a detail-focused cognitive style”, stated in a recent article that weak central coherence is not just a failure to extract global form and meaning, but is also “an outcome of superiority in local processing” 6  --something she views as a bias rather than a lack.

*Dr. Frith is currently at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and the Department of Psychology at University College London (UCL).

“Refrigerator Mothers" – A Discredited Theory

Theories can be wrong. They can even be very wrong. They may be accepted for years, however, before they are successfully challenged or disproved.

There was a time when autism was believed to be a solely psychological condition with no organic –that is, physical or neurological—basis at all. In his 1967 book, The Empty Fortress7 child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argued that autism was caused when a child withdrew from the unbearable rejection of a cold, unresponsive mother. The mother, it was supposed, had not wanted the child, and still did not, whether consciously or unconsciously.

This view of autism was obviously very destructive. Not only did it have no basis in fact, but it placed a terrible burden of blame on women already devastated by their child’s condition. To make things worse, when anyone studied families with an autistic child, they found the mothers were depressed, stressed out, overwhelmed and not very available, all of which was interpreted as support for the “refrigerator mother” theory.

Of course, they had it backwards. It was not that a stressed out and depressed parent created a child with an ASD, but that having a child with an ASD tended to make parents stressed out or depressed. What they had wrong is what researchers call direction of causality.

We bring this up for two reasons.

First of all, it is important to note that theories are just that. Theories. As you educate yourself about all that is going on in the world of autism research, it is important to know the difference between a theory and a fact.

Second of all, we realize that there may still be an echo of the “refrigerator mother” belief out there, a shadow that amplifies the tendency for parents –and especially moms—to blame themselves for their child’s ASD. Yes, parental behavior can make a difference in family functioning. Learning parenting techniques, keeping parental conflict to a minimum, and keeping yourself sane will be of help to your kids, including those with an ASD. But you did not cause your child’s ASD.

The “refrigerator mother” theory has been utterly discredited, and the fact you have a child with an ASD is in no way your fault.

PBS broadcast a documentary on this disturbing chapter in the history of autism, Refrigerator Mothers.

Additional Resources: 

Read more about the extreme male brain theory of autism, and associated studies about fetal testosterone and ASDs.


  1. Baron-Cohen, S. (1995). Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. Cambridge, MA; London: The MIT Press.
  2. Baron-Cohen, S. (2002). The extreme male brain theory of autism. TRENDS in Cognitive Science 6(6). 248-256.
  3. Baron-Cohen, S. (2002). The extreme male brain theory of autism. TRENDS in Cognitive Science 6(6). 248-256. (pg 248) 
  4. Baron-Cohen. (2006). The hyper-systemizing, assortative mating theory of autism. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry 30(5), 865-872.
  5. Frith, U., 1989. Autism: Explaining the Enigma. Blackwell, Oxford.
  6. Happe, F., & Frith, U. (2006) The weak coherence account: Detail-focused cognitive style in autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36(1), 5-25.
  7. Bettelheim, Bruno. (1967). The empty fortress: Infantile autism and the birth of the self. New York: The Free Press.


These archived articles were originally published as part of the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) research project. 
The project is closed and no longer accepting participants.

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