Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a pervasive developmental disorder characterized by a variety of social and communication difficulties, as well an array of other cognitive and perceptual abnormalities. The social and communication deficits have traditionally been explained as an outcome of dysfunction in the ‘theory of mind’ (ToM) system, while the cognitive-perceptual features have often been attributed to a general tendency towards ‘weak central coherence’ (WCC). Despite early attempts at uniting the ToM and WCC features under a single cognitive framework, recent theorizing has argued that they should be treated as distinct but co-occurring aspects of the disorder.
In the current project, however, we have uncovered preliminary evidence for a direct causal relationship between WCC and ToM abilities, via social and self-categorization mechanisms. Across a series of experiments employing a category confusion task, we introduced covariation between hierarchically-embedded categories and social information – at the local level, the global level, or at both the local and global levels simultaneously. We then asked participants to complete one of a variety of ToM tasks, and measured participants’ autistic-like traits on the self-report Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ).
Results show that AQ is related with increased local social categorization, and with an overall decrease in self-categorization. These categorization patterns in turn predict the pattern of results on the ToM tasks, thus demonstrating a causal relationship between central coherence and ToM abilities. Results will be discussed in terms of the development of a unified account of ASD, the mechanisms underlying ToM abilities, the process of categorization, and in terms of their implications for self-categorization theory.