Hi everyone, I hope you liked my last post on how children develop a theory of mind – this post follows on, and talks about children with autism (if you haven’t read that post, find it here.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder, which has a prevalence of 60 per 10,000 children under 8 in the UK (Baird et al, 2000). Characteristics of autism include impairments in social interactions, communication, and imaginative behaviours. Also, individuals with autism tend to like to stick to routine, and can become distressed if their routine changes. However, autism is a spectrum, and sufferers can have a range from very mild, to severe impairments. For example, the disorder formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome had all the characteristics of autism, but without the language difficulties (however this is now no longer recognised as a separate disorder).
Criteria for social impairments include lack of eye contact during interactions, and the lack of voluntarily sharing interests and enjoyment with others. Communication impairments include a delay of language development, and a lack of varied pretend play. Finally, examples of repetitive behaviour include sticking to rituals, and a preoccupation with the parts of objects. As mentioned in my last post, some of these behaviours can be explained by deficits in a theory of mind, which is a theory proposed by Baron-Cohen et al.
As well as the traditional theory of mind tasks, they also carried out more advanced experiments, called ‘reading the eyes’ tasks. In these, adults with autism were shown pictures of people’s eyes, and had to work out the emotion the eyes were showing. They found that autistic participants made more errors than controls without the disorder. However, it is worth noting that this task is challenging to normally developed adults – see how you get on from the picture below!
One other interesting thing about autism is that it is more common in males than females, with a 3:1 ratio. Baron-Cohen (2003) therefore outlined his theory that autism is an extreme form of the male brain. This theory states that everyone has either a male or female brain, regardless of their actual gender, with the male brain being better at systemising, and the female brain better at empathising. As autistic individuals can struggle showing empathy, and are generally interesting in how things work, he hypothesised that autism reflects the male brain. Despite the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’, he found that about 17% of men had a ‘female’ brain, with the same percentage of women having a ‘male’ brain. Many people also have a balanced brain, showing aspects of both.
I kind of get why he came to this conclusion, but I think that this theory is very oversimplified, and that there is actually no need for the terms ‘male’ or ‘female’ at all – especially as people can have aspects of both, and that the brain type has nothing to do with gender! Might be one theory to take with a pinch of salt…
But what do you think? Let me know in the comments and thanks for reading!