Linking Theories to Practice: Exploring Theory of Mind, Weak Central Cohesion, and Executive Functioning in ASD

Learn about the three psychological theories of ASD — Theory of Mind, Weak Central Cohesion, and executive functioning. Understanding these theories can help families and educators manage challenging behaviors at home and in the classroom.

The variation of cognitive impairments in individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) presents a challenge for developing unifying theories of the core weakness.

Over the past 20 years, researchers in psychology have attempted to develop unifying theories of the central deficit present in individuals with ASD. While research into these areas is common, no one theory can truly explain all of the behaviors exhibited by any particular individual with ASD.

However, teachers, parents, and individuals on the spectrum may find that viewing strengths and challenges through any one of these lenses provides some insight into appropriate interventions. In addition, a better understanding of deficits can help us understand challenging behaviors in a new light. A brief description of three psychological theories of ASD and their potential implications are included below.

Theory of Mind Deficit (ToM)

One of the most common and most researched theories of autism is the Theory of Mind (ToM), hypothesis developed by Simon Baron-Cohen. ToM was originally developed when researchers were examining characteristics that may or may not be unique to the human species. The idea was that an individual with a theory of mind should be able to identify mental states within themselves and others, and use this information to make predications regarding others’ behavior (Premack & Woodruff, 1978).

After reading about this concept, scientist Simon Baron-Cohen developed the ToM hypothesis of autism. He suggested that it is precisely this ability that is impaired in children with autism. In essence, this theory suggests that it is impairment in taking the perspective of others that results in many of the common deficits in autism, such as intentional communication, pretend play, and inferring others’ emotions and beliefs (Baron-Cohen, 1999). This deficit is often termed “mindblindness.”

A deficit in ToM results in individuals on the autism spectrum performing less well on tasks that require “mind reading” compared to their typically developing peers.

A deficit in ToM means that individuals with ASD may struggle in the following areas:

  1. Explaining their behaviors
  2. Understanding their emotions
  3. Predicting the behaviors or emotional state of others
  4. Understanding the perspectives of others
  5. Inferring the intentions of others
  6. Understanding that behavior impacts how others think and/or feel
  7. Differentiating fact and fiction

Due to these deficits, explicit teaching regarding how to understand the emotions of others and how to problem solve in social situations is a necessity. Strategies such as visuals, role-play, or social narratives to remind individuals with ASD about emotional states or appropriate behaviors can be useful.

In addition, parents and teachers working with individuals on the spectrum should be careful not to place blame on behaviors that have repercussions that are not fully understood by that child or adult. Consider explaining how behaviors impact others or make others feel before reprimanding.

Books with more information

Learn more from the expert

Autism expert Dr. Sylvia Diehl talks about Theory of Mind in children with ASD. See the full interview with Dr. Diehl.

Weak Central Cohesion (WCC)

An additional psychological theory of ASD is that individuals on the spectrum have Weak Central Cohesion (WCC). The WCC theory suggests that individuals on the spectrum struggle to incorporate information at different levels, and as a result, fail to integrate detail into global entities (Frith, 1989). Some describe this by saying they are not able “to see the forest through the trees.”

This theory has been used to describe both assets and deficits in individuals with ASD. For example, this would explain why individuals with autism quite frequently develop very strong skills in math or science, but have difficulty grasping the gist of a story.

It is possible that WCC may be related to ToM because in order to understand the thoughts and feelings of another person in a real life situation, an individual needs to be able to take into account the social context and integrate diverse information from a variety of sources (Happé, 1995).

However, studies examining WCC in populations of children and adults with ASD have provided inconsistent results. While researchers have shown that participants with ASD perform better on visual processing tasks requiring detailed information processing than people without ASD (Siegel, Minshew, & Goldstein, 1996), other studies have reported no differences between participants with ASD and control groups on these tasks (Ozonoff, Pennington, & Rogers, 1991).

A deficit in WCC means that individuals with ASD may struggle in the following areas:

  1. Fixation on details
  2. Reading comprehension
  3. Literal thinking (i.e., “black-and-white” thinking)
  4. Generalizing information learned to different domains

Individuals with WCC may require help combining information from several sources to “see the big picture.” Consider using guiding questions and visual organizers to support individuals in drawing connections and generalizing to other scenarios.

It is also important to remember that this type of thinking can be beneficial and results in several strengths as well. For example, individuals with ASD can be very detail oriented and may have the ability to focus intently for extended periods of time. Using these skills in functional tasks can showcase their strengths.

In addition, the WCC theory has been linked to strong visual processing. Individuals with ASD will be able to take in a great deal of information when it is presented visually as opposed to other formats. 

Books with more information

Learn more from the expert

Autism expert Dr. Sylvia Diehl talks about central coherence in children with ASD. See the full interview with Dr. Diehl.

Executive Functioning Disorder

An additional theory that explains the deficits in ASD is the executive functioning disorder hypothesis, or what some refer to as the complex information processing theory. Pennington and Ozonoff (1996) proposed the executive dysfunction theory of autism when they observed that individuals with ASD struggled in complex tasks involving abstract concepts such as reasoning and planning.

This theory has been expanded using neuropsychological tests. Researchers have generally observed that individuals with ASD struggle more than their peers when their brain needs to process more information at once.  Minshew and Goldstein (1998) found that as the complexity of tasks were increased, individuals with autism were more impaired than those without autism.

Children and adults with a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often have impaired executive functioning, as well.

A deficit in executive functioning means that children with ASD may struggle in the following areas:

  1. Planning ahead, preparing for the next activity
  2. Keeping things organized
  3. Following multi-step directions
  4. Combining information from several sources to problem solve

Any individual that is struggling with executive functioning will require a lot of environmental support to be successful. This includes daily planners, checklists, and homework logs between teachers and parents to keep kids organized and to support homework completion. 

Also, a posted schedule at home or in the classroom is very important. In addition, be sure to allow extra time for students to process directions, supply directions one step at a time, or repeat directions as needed.

Books with more information

Learn more from the expert

Child psychologist Dr. Joyce Cooper-Kahn talks about executive function in children with ASD. See the full interview with Dr. Cooper-Kahn.

References

Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Baron-Cohen, S. (1999). Theory of mind and autism: A fifteen year review. In M. Corbalis and S. Lea (Eds.), The descent of mind: Psychological perspectives on hominid evolution (pp. 3–16). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Happé, F. (1995) The role of age and verbal ability in the theory of mind task performance of subjects with autism. Child Development, 6, 843–855.

Frith, U. Autism: Explaining the enigma. Oxford, UK: Blackwell; 1989.

Minshew, N. J., & Goldstein, G. (1998). Autism as a disorder of complex information processing. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 4(2), 129–136.

Ozonoff, S., Pennington, B. F., & Rogers, S. J. (1991). Executive function deficits in high functioning autistic individuals: Relationship to theory of mind. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 31, 343–361.

Pennington, B. F., & Ozonoff, S. (1996). Executive functions and developmental psychopathology. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 37(1), 51–87.

Premack, D. & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 4, 515–526.

Siegel, D. J., Minshew, N. J., & Goldstein, G. (1996). Wechsler IQ profiles in diagnosis of high-functioning autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 26, 389–406.

Merrill, A. (2015). Linking theories to practice: exploring theory of mind, weak central cohesion, and executive functioning in ASD. The Reporter E-Newsletter 20(7). Retrieved from https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/linking-theories-to-practice

Reprints

For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.

Add comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
"Let children read whatever they want and then talk about it with them. If parents and kids can talk together, we won't have as much censorship because we won't have as much fear." —

Judy Blume