Diagnostic categories describe the what of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). They list challenging behaviors, unusual ways of being, and other characteristics as criteria for determining whether a certain individual might be considered to “be autistic” or “have Asperger’s Syndrome.”
Theories, on the other hand, are all about why.
Coming up with theories is at the heart of the scientific process. In simplest terms, observations of a phenomenon lead to an educated guess about what is causing it or how it works. Experiments or other forms of research then test this guess or hypothesis. If these guesses are confirmed, a theory emerges. If it’s a powerful one, it will both explain, telling you why something is happening in such-and-such a way, and predict, telling you what should happen next. Theories may be abandoned or modified as researchers learn from both their successes and their failures.
Explaining how something works is important, and not only for the sake of knowledge itself. Explanations can lead to solutions. You can’t fix something if you don’t understand what’s gone wrong. You can’t prevent cancer cells from madly multiplying if you don’t know how and why they started to madly multiply in the first place. To interfere in the process, you have to understand the process, in all its overwhelming complexity.
Theories about ASDs are attempts to explain the reasons for the bewildering array of characteristics shared by individuals “on the spectrum.” We know there are deficits in social interaction and language. We know there are intense areas of interest, “stereotyped” behaviors, sensory issues, and meltdowns. Scholars representing a wide variety of fields such as Genetics, Neurobiology, and Cognitive Psychology are developing theories about why this specific profile exists in the hope that a more accurate understanding will lead to better diagnosis, interventions, and treatments.
The multiple aspects of ASDs are, in all likelihood, far too complex to be explained by any single theory. It is excellent, therefore, that a number of thoughtful frameworks for thinking about ASDs exist.