It is essential to marry the impact of the ‘triad’ with an understanding of both cognitive and affective explanations of autism in order that behaviours and approaches to learning are understood and supported by appropriate teaching methods.
Cognitive Explanations of Autism
Currently 3 dominant psychological theories prevail and attempt to provide explanations of autism, these are that:
• Individuals on the spectrum have an impaired Theory of Mind mechanism
• Individuals on the spectrum have a weak drive for Central Coherence
• Individuals on the spectrum have a range of executive dysfunctions
Responding to criticisms that Theory of Mind principles could be learned by high-functioning individuals with ASD, and that it could not fully explain the non-social features of autism such as need for sameness, or repetitive behaviour, Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues developed a new cognitive theory of autism:
In Hyper-systemizing theory (2006), Baron-Cohen argues that, together, social deficits and the unrelenting desire to achieve predictability in the environment account for key components of autism. He describes people with autism as ‘hyper-systemizers’, meaning that they only seem able to process law-governed ‘highly systemizable’ information, given that, in his view, this is the most powerful way to predict change.
Hyper-systemizers seek out structure in data in the form of patterns, rules and regularity by means of observation of ‘input-operation-output’ relationships, Baron-Cohen helpfully illustrates these complex connections by way of simple examples of ‘100% lawful systems’ such as the turning on and off of a light switch. Other systems, like the laws governing human behaviour are far less lawful as they have endless combinations which are largely ‘unsystemizable’.
An extension of this theory is Baron-Cohen’s Empathizing-Systemizing Theory (2009):
It is a two-factor theory which explains the social and non-social features of ASD (when the drive to systemize is viewed as a way of explaining resistance to change and limited interests of those on the spectrum)
Only in those with ASD has a dissociation been proven between empathy and their drive to systemize
The inability to generalise between situations is well-documented as challenging for those with ASD. The E-S Theory argues that this should be considered an expected outcome if each autistic person is understood as trying to comprehend each system as unique.
Language delay can be understood in terms of the challenge of identifying enough from within the variety of spoken language to meet systemizing needs.
The theory has given rise to the development of new interventions which use strengths of hypersystemizers to teach empathy, with notable success reported using animation (Golan et all 2009)