On Psychological Theories of Autism

Sep 15, 2018 · 3 min read

This is my one-page contribution to Sue Fletcher-Watson and Francesca Happé’s Autism: A New Introduction to Psychological Theory and Current Debates (2nd Edition), published by Routledge in 2019.

The below was my response to Chapter 9, ‘The impact of cognitive models on autism understanding and practice’. There’s a lot more to be said about all these theories and others that don’t get a look-in (some of which I later covered in Theories and Practice in Autism) but I think this serves as a decent summary of why I find these theories unsatisfactory. I am assuming some familiarity with the theories here — you might like to start with Damian Milton’s ‘So What Exactly Is Autism?’ if you need some background to what I’m talking about.

I have always found it odd how much about autistic experience is left untouched by most theories about autism. Executive dysfunction is a useful term to describe aspects of autistic thinking, but says nothing about perceptual differences, and barely addresses social difficulties. Thinking in terms of Theory of Mind may provide a useful handle for novices, but it does nothing to help people to understand problems relating to inertia or, again, perceptual differences. The ‘extreme male brain’ theory leaves similar gaps. The ‘intense world’ hypothesis, not addressed here, does deal with perceptual differences but is less convincing in providing an account of differences in social interactions and attentional control.

Scientific theories are useful to the extent they have explanatory and predictive power. From my perspective as an autistic adult and a science teacher, none of the theories presented in this chapter are altogether satisfactory on this front. Even within the domains of autistic experience that they do address, I have misgivings.

Theory of Mind deficit does little to explain communication difficulties resulting from literal-mindedness, or from neurotypicals having just as much difficulty understanding autistic minds as vice versa (Milton 2012). As such, it is a weak explanation for observed social difficulties; worse, focusing on social manifestations of autism has evidently been a factor in the under-diagnosis of female autists, and others who blend in better (Lai et al 2017). It also backfires when people wrongly assume autistics don’t understand other people’s perspectives (Heasman 2017) and that problems in communication all stem from the autistic side.

The category of ‘executive functions’ includes several different cognitive abilities, and many other conditions also affect some of these in different ways, so distinguishing their role in autism requires considerable elaboration. The lack of parsimony here limits the usefulness of the idea in understanding autism; it needs breaking down into components before it really starts to explain anything. In my experience, the biggest factor in autistic executive dysfunction is inertia; thinking in those terms provides a much tighter explanation than ‘executive dysfunction’ for most (but not all) of these difficulties.

The only theory I’m aware of that seems to make a decent stab at explaining the many seemingly disparate features of autistic psychology — from inertia to communication problems to hyperfocus and spiky profiles — is monotropism. However, this theory (formulated by autistics who aren’t professional psychologists) has received relatively little attention from psychologists, and awaits direct empirical verification.


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