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prevalence rates of around 1 in 100, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a well-known
neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by persistent deficits in social
interaction and communication with restricted, repetitive patterns of
interests, behaviours or activities, according to the DSM-5 diagnostic
criteria. Kanner (1943) first recognised autism as a unique condition when he
examined social and linguistic deficits in young children such as Donald. T. An
abundance of theories have since been proposed to explain autistic symptoms,
yet there are three undeniably key cognitive theories which provide coherent
and valid explanations of autistic symptoms, these include the Theory of Mind,
Executive Functioning and Weak Central Coherence. This essay will critically
evaluate and compare each of the three predominant cognitive theories of autism
through consideration of specificity; does autism arise from a domain-specific
factor or are multiple factors involved? Uniqueness; is the factor unique to
autism or is it involved in other developmental disorders? And universality, is
the factor found in every individual with autism, or just the majority.

Alan Leslie (1987)
attributes the social impairment characteristic of autism to a
metarepresentational deficit in developing children, caused by failure in
decoupling mechanisms, thereby creating difficulties in recognising mental
states and being able to engage in pretend play. Such an observation led to the
Theory of Mind (ToM) which suggests those with autism struggle to attribute
mental states to themselves and others. Wimmer and Perner (1983) effectively devised the unexpected transfer test of false
belief to test for ToM and corresponding metarepresentational deficits in
autistic children. In a seminal study, Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Firth (1985) used the Sally Ann task, an adaptation of the unexpected
transfer test, to investigate whether children with autism who do not
understand the mind, also fail to acknowledge false belief. The task involves
presenting children with two dolls, Sally and Anne. Sally places a marble in
her basket before leaving the room, whereupon Anne takes the marble and hides
it in her box. The children are asked where Sally will look for the marble when
she returns. Results show that 80% of autistic children failed to consider
Sally’s belief of where the marble originally was. Therefore, this suggests that
such autistic children do have a deficit in their Theory of Mind.

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such an intuitive theory is susceptible to criticism, as Happé (1994) argues that considering 20% of autistic children passed
false belief tests, ToM is not a universal deficit in those with autism,
thus weakening ToM as an explanation of autistic symptoms. Nonetheless, Baron-Cohen (1989) responded to this issue of universality by later proposing
a second-order false belief task which saw 90% of typically developing children
pass, with no autistic children passing. Thus, Baron-Cohen suggested that some
autistic individuals might succeed in a first-order ToM task, they couldn’t
pass a second-order task and therefore didn’t possess a representational ToM. Equally,
Zelazo et al
(1996) also critiqued ToM as they
found that children with Downs Syndrome were liable to false belief tasks beyond
the age of 4. Therefore, this suggests that deficits in ToM are not unique to
autistic individuals, as characteristics are found in those with other
developmental disorders. Furthermore, this weakens ToM as a cognitive
explanation of autistic symptoms. And yet, it is undeniable that ToM does offer
a useful insight into the workings of an autistic mind and thus can be used to
help autistic children’s understanding of other’s thoughts and feelings so to improve
their perception of the world around them. For instance, parents can use role
play to encourage their child to think about and act out other people’s
perspectives, which aids in developing their ToM.

In contrast to Theory of Mind, Executive Function
has a clearer definition which Ozonoff et al (1991) clarifies
as “the ability to maintain an appropriate problem-solving set for attainment
of a future goal” which involves behaviours such as planning, organising and
impulse control. Such behaviours have been linked to frontal structures in the
brain, like the prefrontal cortex. Ozonoff, Pennington and Rogers (1991) sought to investigate mental inflexibility in those
with autism. They used the Wisconsin Card Sort Test whereby the participant has
to sort the cards according to an unspoken rule, for instance by colour or
shape. It was found that participants with ASD were unable to shift attentional
focus and found the task difficult. In addition to the card sort, Ozonoff et al
(1991) presented tests of false belief. The findings showed that some participants
with autism passed tests of false belief, however all lacked flexibility in
thought with regards to the card sort task. Furthermore, it could be argued
that inflexibility of thought is a more reliable indicator of autism than
failure to acknowledge false beliefs.

 A significant difference between
ToM and EF explanations of autism is that ToM postulates a domain-specific
deficit whereas executive functions are fundamentally domain-general. However, it
has been proposed that there is a potential relationship between EF and ToM, whereby
the development of executive functions allows a child’s ToM to develop. Ozonoff
(1997) found that individuals with disorders such as OCD and ADHD perform
similarly on tests of executive function compared to those with autism. Consequently,
it appears that executive deficits are not unique to autism. Yet, unlike the
afore mentioned disorders, Ozonoff proposed that

 It has been found that in tests of executive
function, those with disorders such as ADHD and OCD tend to perform similarly
to those with autism, perhaps suggesting that executive deficits aren’t unique to
autism. However, Ozonoff (1997) proposed that unlike the afore mentioned

EF, Weak Central Coherence Theory (WCC) is domain-general. WCC refers to the
ability to integrate information into meaningful representations, a
characteristic that autistic individuals struggle with as they tend to focus on
small details instead of the whole, Kanner
(1943). A significant strength of
WCC is that it explains both social and non-social features of autism thus
providing a broader explanation of autistic symptoms. A characteristic of WCC
is that autistic individuals focus their attention on small details, numerous
studies investigating perceptual processes, such as Shah and Firth (1983), have shown that children with autism tend to score higher
on the Children’s Embedded Figures Test (CEST). In such a test, participants
have to locate a small target shape within a drawing of a larger shape. Firth (1989) suggests that those with autism perform better on tasks such
as CEST because they have a weak central coherence and thereby lack cognitive
drive to process globally.

It could be argued that WCC is a
product of cognitive inflexibility in that those with autism struggle to shift
from local to global processing, thus linking WCC with executive dysfunction.
However, Booth, Charlton,
Hughes and Happe (2003) found that in
a drawing task, both the autistic and ADHD groups displayed difficulties in
planning whereas only the autistic group displayed evidence of WCC. Furthermore,
this indicates that WCC is independent of EF in autism. Furthermore, this
suggests that WCC is unique in it’s explanation of autistic symptoms, thus
strengthening it as a valid cognitive theory of autism. Equally, Happé’s
(1999) review suggests that WCC may have specificity as
studies show that WCC and ToM appear independent of each other. Those who
passed a ToM test were shown to have WCC in tests such as block design.

To conclude, it is apparent that the
three cognitive theories considered above are sufficient in explaining autism. Future
directions for the study of autism could involve establishing clearer
boundaries between autism and other developmental disorders.

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