Autism and Theory of the Mind(ToM)

One persons impression of the brain areas affected by autism. Click on the image for a larger view

By A. G. Moore

Autism is a Rubik’s Cube of modern psychology. The puzzle beckons irresistibly.  Hence the rush to provide an explanation for autism and the eagerness to accept a comprehensive formulation that will answer all questions and apply to all situations.

Theory of the Mind (ToM) is just such a formulation. Although ToM has its roots in philosophy, it has been appropriated by psychologists to explain stages of child development and certain distinct psychological states—among them autism. Theory of the Mind posits that in order to socialize, a person has to be able to mentalize (imagine) what is in the mind of another person and respond appropriately to that information. According to Simon Baron-Cohen, the ability to mentalize and apply this skill in a social situation takes place at around the age of four. In Baron-Cohen’s view, people who are autistic cannot mentalize at this age and he claims that a rudimentary test performed on children supports this conclusion.

Before I go any further, let me emphasize that ToM is a theory—and not a unified one at that. There are two branches of ToM: Theory-Theory (TT) and Simulation Theory (ST). Bear with me, because this is important: though ToM is a theory that does not enjoy scientific consensus, it has been granted legitimacy by popular media and by most psychologists.

And now the reality check.

Theory of the Mind is not universally accepted by the scientific community. Shaun Gallagher, for example, a scholar who has held highly respected academic positions in Europe and in the U.S, contests the validity of Theory of the Mind, especially as it applies to autism. In 2004 Dr. Gallagher published a paper (http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~gallaghr/gall04autism.pdf) which describes Interaction Theory. Gallagher envisions in this theory a more primitive basis for interaction than the mentalizing process in Theory of the Mind. Gallagher believes that even in infancy, Interaction Theory can be seen operating. Interaction Theory involves observing and responding to gestures and facial expressions. These “embodiments” of feelings and thoughts trigger an almost automatic response in the observer.

Professor Gallagher offers one, but not the only, alternative to ToM as an explanation for autism. Another can be found in a rather dense but fascinating paper that appears on the University of Virginia’s (Medical School) website. Entitled Empirical Challenges to Conventional Mind-Brain Theory , this paper’s conclusions are applicable to autism though that is not the focus of the article. With exhaustive analysis of neurological, psychological and philosophical sources, the authors suggest each of us has a mind that is unknowable to another. The authors, Edward and Emily Kelly, state: …”mainstream scientific psychology has not provided a satisfactory theory of mind, or solved the mind-body problem”.

Yet another perspective on autism is offered by three authors who write in Frontiers of Neuroscience (see: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2518049/). These  authors discuss something they call the “Intense World Syndrome”. The image of the autistic personality they visualize is one that is shaped by a system in hyper-drive. They hypothesize that “hyper-reactivity and hyper-plasticity of local neuronal circuits” are the “core pathology” of the “autistic brain.”

The three views discussed above are just a sample of alternative ideas about how we socialize and the way that socialization might go awry in autism.

Educational models, therapeutic interventions and diagnostic protocols are designed with the idea that ToM explains autism. This is serious stuff. Wasted years and wasted money, wasted opportunity result from the acceptance of this unproven theory.

Wanting to solve the riddle of autism is not the same as solving it. And suggestive studies that are vulnerable to communication difficulties and subjective interpretation should not be substituted for fact.

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