According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (2014), autism includes a range of complex disorders arising qualifying as neurological disorders. Autism is most often characterized by social and communication impairments, and patterns of behaviors that are often stereotyped and restrictive (NIH, 2014). Further, autism which includes a wide range of disorders characterized as autism spectrum disorders or ASD, may include milder forms or high-functioning autism, formerly classified as Asperger, and pervasive development disorder that is not otherwise classified or specified, typically classified as PDD-NOS (NIH, 2014). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that as many as 1 of every 88 children have ASD (NIH, 2014). The primary or most prevalent feature of ASD includes difficulty with social interaction; even infants have difficulty with interaction, as many babies are unresponsive or ten to focus more intently on one object, and may do so for long periods of time (NIH, 2014). While parents may identify these children as very good or calm children, it is only later that these children are identified with a problem as they withdraw or may seem indifferent to engaging in social engagement (NIH, 2014). They often have difficulty interpreting how others are feeling or what other members of society think as they are having difficulty interpreting social cues, resulting in behaviors that are deemed inappropriate. Below are common theories related to autism.

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Cognitive Psychology
The most well-known theory related to autism is the cognitive psychological approach to autism. Rajendran & Mitchell (2007) provide a cognitive overview and cognitive theories of autism. They explore the theory of mind deficit, executive dysfunction and weak central coherence accounts, noting their strengths and limitations. The researchers suggest that cognitive theories have dominated psychological research into autism. The authors note the earliest theories on autism, note as the “Refrigerator mother” theory, suggested that emotionless parenting caused children to develop autism. These theories were influential but did not truly explain autism. Further, these theories were later debunked.

The Cognitive Era however, worked more to find cognitive-based explanation via experimentation. Cognitive abilities included investigation of perception, language and memory. Studies provided mixed findings, including under and over sensitivity related to visual and auditory stimuli according to the researchers. These findings however were found in children other than autistic children and therefore not unique. The researchers note the theory of mind hypothesis suggests that autistic individuals are not capable of imputing mental states for themselves or others, and this impairment may manifest as a lack of ability to mentalize or account for other individual’s mental states. Thus, autistic children are often incapable of inferring the mental states of others.

The Executive Dysfunction test, according to the cognitive theory, suggests that executive functions are impaired, and may result from a brain injury. Thus, individuals with autism prefer sameness, and may have difficult when asked to switch attention (Rajendran & Mitchell, 2007). The Weak Central Coherence Theory suggests that autistic individuals have a weak or lacking drive for coherence, meaning autistic individual process things in a pieced manner, processing constituent parts rather than the whole, and may have difficult putting things together (Rajendran & Mitchell, 2007). These psychological theories helped advance the understanding of autism and explain why many children acted in the manner they did, as well as helped psychologists come up with approached to working with children that had autism.

Social Psychology
This approach rose largely as many of the symptoms that arose from autism were social in nature, and arose from the lack of social interaction experienced by autistic individuals. Tager-Flusberg (1999) suggests that autism may be diagnosed on three main areas of impairment which include social functioning, language and communication and repetitive or stereotyped patterns of behavior or social interests and activities. Research suggests that there is a theory of mind related to autism which relates to the cognitive deficit apparent in autism, suggesting that autism involves difficulty identifying mental states in others and interpreting behavior related to others mental states. Social theory acknowledges that autistic children to not necessarily avoid people or demonstrate lack of interest in social activities; rather social behaviors and interaction may be unpredictable, or children may not understand the “mentalistic reasons for people’s actions” and therefore social interactions may result I reduced complexity and uncertainty, and therefore may be perceived as more rigid in nature (Tager-Flusberg, 1999). Autistic children may need to learn to engage in reciprocal conversation and may not feel the need to continuously play in games over an extended time period. Autistic children can learn to mimic behaviors and therefore compensate for social limitations. Further, autistic children can learn to imitate over time and thus interact with society although they are far less likely to initiate approaches toward others.

Developmental Psychology
Because autism largely was diagnosed in childhood, and childhood involved developmental stages, developmental psychology is useful in understanding autism and applying methods of rehabilitation. Stanley & Serena (1999) examine autism from a developmental and functional perspective, noting that children development in stages, and thus explore autism from developmental and functional approaches. The researcher’s note that the functional approaches has not yet been adequately articulated so that a systematized guide and assessment along with interventions have been realized for children with autism. Recognitions children emotional and developmental capacities at each developmental stage is critical to understanding autism, along with individual differences in children’s sensory processing, motor planning, sequencing and interaction patterns (Stanely & Spencer, 1999). Each child that has developmental challenges according to this theory is unique; thus by adopting a functional and developmental approach, psychologists and therapists can capture a child with autisms unique strengths, as well as work with their unique challenges. In this way the therapist can provide a comprehensive and functional approach to helping children with autism, and create a personalized framework for developing a treatment protocol for the child and their family.

  • NIH. (2014). Autism Fact Sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Retrieved from:
  • Rajendran, G. & Mitchell, P. (2007). Cognitive Theories of Autism. Science Direct.
    Developmental Review. 27:224-260.
  • Stanely, G & Serena, W. (1999). A Functional Developmental Approach to Autism Spectrum Disorders. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities. 24(3):1. 147-161.
  • Tager-Flusberg, H. (1999). A Psychological Approach to Understanding the Social and
    Language Impairments in Autism. Int Rev Psychiatry. 11(4): 325-334.