Autism is a behaviourally defined developmental disorder that leads to impairments in interaction and communication (Senju, 2013). The DSM-5 defines the condition in terms of a triad of impairments, including social interaction and social communication deficits which are in conjunction, and restricted behavioural patterns. Specifically, individuals with Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will display reduced signs of non-verbal interest when communicating with other individuals, such as lack of eye contact. In addition, a lack of ability to communicate verbally and non-verbally by sharing ideas or interest may also be present. Despite the DSM-5 defining repetitive behaviour as an important symptom of ASD, critics argue it should be replaced within the triad with impairment of social imagination which has more prominent affects. This effects everyday social functioning leading to an inhibition of anticipating behavioural outcomes (Wing, Gould & Gillberg, 2011).
Due to these social cognition deficits ASD `is a form of atypical development, that is, individuals with the disorder differ from the norm in terms of typical development (Senju, 2013) which are evident from as early as two years old (Baron-Cohen, 2000). Autism is considered as a spectrum of impairments; therefore, the severity of these impairments can vary across individuals. An individual with Asperger’s syndrome may display behaviour closer to typical individuals than those with low functioning ASD throughout development. Autism can also manifest at differing levels of severity across development, meaning that an individual may display traits of low functioning Autism in early childhood which then eases off with adulthood to be closer to that of high functioning individuals (Wing, Gould ; Gillberg, 2011).
Therefore, providing a thorough theory to explain the atypical development observed in ASD, which is valid across the spectrum, can be challenging since Autism can vary throughout development and across individuals. Despite this, ‘mindblindness’ continues to dominate as one of the most extensive theoretical accounts which focuses on the social deficits experienced in ASD.
Mindblindness is a term coined by Baron-Cohen (1990) describing the impaired ability individuals with ASD experience regarding mindreading, which is inferring mental states automatically onto themselves and others otherwise known as a Theory of the Mind (ToM). Therefore, the term ‘mindblindness’ is used to describe individuals incapacity to display a ToM, However, an important consideration when assessing whether ‘mindblindness’ can fully explain atypical development in ASD is that, as noted by Baron-Cohen (2000) individuals with ASD display typical mentalizing mechanisms in early development such as an intentionality detector (ID) and eye-direction detector (EDD). Indeed, just as in typically developed individuals, ID enables those with ASD to infer volitional mental states such as goal and desire, notably illustrated using verbs such as “want” from an early age. In addition, EDD allows individuals to detect the presence of eyes and what direction the eyes are looking at which is useful when communicating with others. Despite having these abilities, clear differences in development between neurotypicals and individuals with ASD become prominent when considering their inability to establish a Shared Attention Mechanism (SAM) which requires more complex levels of mentalizing. Unlike neurotypicals, individuals with ASD fail to establish triadic representations of shared interest across all modalities, between themselves and others as well as another agent. An example of which is speaking too loudly/quietly instead of establishing joint auditory attention by regarding the listener. Therefore, ‘mindblindness’ does not imply that individuals with ASD have no simple mentalizing mechanisms but that more complex mentalizing tasks can cause difficulty and lead to clear demonstrations of differences in social interaction and communication development. Indeed, one famous study which captured this was Baron-Cohen (1985) Sally-Anne false belief task which lead to the proposal that individuals with ASD were mindblind since the cognitively mature Autistic participants (normal IQ ; 11 years old) failed to mentalize beliefs (Frith, ) in comparison to typically developing 4-5 year olds who presented no difficulty. The task proceeded as follows, the main actor Sally placed her marble into her basket and left the scene, in the meantime the second character Anne moved the marble to another location; box in trial one, experimenters pocket in the second trial. Upon Sally’s return the children were asked a series of questions testing their belief – “Where will Sally look for her marble?” and their understanding of where the marble was at the beginning and end of the scene. Since 80% of individuals with ASD failed to take into account Sally’s false belief by attributing that she would look where Anne moved the marble the experimenters concluded that children with ASD could no employ a ToM which was due to their inability to represent mental states which in turn explained the difficulties they experiences in everyday social situations.