• Understanding Autism from the Inside

    “Academics came easily to me. The rest of life—not so much.”

Three Core Deficits of Asperger’s Syndrome / Autism

Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome, or Autism have difficulties/deficits/disabilities in three core aspects of brain functioning—three areas that come naturally or subconsciously to others.Often those with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome have difficulty in areas that come naturally to other people. There are three core areas that those on the Autism Spectrum struggle with: Theory of Mind Deficits or Mind-Blindness, Weak Central Coherence, and Executive Dysfunction. These three areas can have a remarkable impact on both social and practical aspects of the individual’s life.

What is Theory of Mind?

Theory of mind is the cognitive process, or ability to “mind-read”; the ability to interpret and understand the world around us. It is the intuitive knowledge that children develop in the preschool years (by the age of four) that other people have thoughts, knowledge, beliefs, and desires that will influence their behaviors. This knowledge allows us to be able to relate to, and understand the behaviors of others.

What does it mean to have a Theory of Mind Deficit, or Mind-Blindness?

Theory of Mind deficit or “mind-blindness” is an inability to recognize that other people have thoughts, feelings, intentions, and knowledge that differ from your own. Those who have a theory of mind deficit or mind-blindness have a difficult time intuitively guessing what another person may be thinking, how they may feel, and ultimately be unable to “predict” how they may react in multiple situations. Individuals with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome often struggle in this area. Further, they may automatically assume that their knowledge base is the same as others, meaning if they know something, than you must too. Likewise, if a thought or feeling does not cross there mind, it will not occur to them that it will cross yours. This inability to “predict” the outcome of situations based on other’s feelings, emotions, or intentions can have a negative social impact on their lives. It makes it difficult for the autistic person to intuitively pick out lies, sarcasm, and understand whether someone’s action was intentional or accidental.

What is Central Coherence?

Central coherence is the ability to focus on both details as well as wholes. People with autism appear to have a heightened focus on details rather than wholes, a cognitive style termed ‘weak central coherence’. Compounding the problem many times individuals with autism may have difficulty completing tasks, sticking with a plan, and working towards long-term goals. They may struggle with the sequencing needed to complete complex tasks—an example of executive dysfunction.

What does Weak Central Coherence mean?

Weak central coherence is the inability to bring together various details from perception to make a meaningful whole. In other words, it is the hyper-focus on the details without being able to apply the details to the whole picture, getting lost in the details, and then—missing the forest for the trees.

What is Executive Function?

Executive function pertains to the way in which people monitor and control their thoughts and actions, which includes processes like working memory, planning, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. Executive function is responsible for your skills and ability to goal, plan, sequence, prioritize, organize, initiate, inhibit, pace, shift, self-monitor, emotional control, and completing.

How does Executive Dysfunction affect someone with Autism?

When a person with autism is experiencing executive dysfunction, they experience impairment or deficits in the higher-order processes that enable them to plan, sequence, initiate, and sustain behaviors towards some goal, incorporating feedback and making adjustments along the way. An autistic person may have trouble deciding what to do next (sequencing) in order to move themselves closer to their goal because all the tasks needed to be completed, feel of equal importance (prioritizing), and need attention. It is this inability to sequence, and prioritize effectively that often results in not being able to complete a project/goal.

Each person on the Autism Spectrum is affected differently, and to varying degrees. The preceding three core deficits are fairly common and usually affect most autistic individuals in some way. Theory of mind deficit can make it difficult interacting and interpreting the world socially. Weak central coherence can be a distraction and interfere with both social interaction and work functions; however, it may also be responsible for the autistic person’s superior attention to detail. Executive dysfunction can be troublesome when planning, and sustaining everyday tasks such as performing on the job, time-management, budgeting and reaching goals.

Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert , contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, three of which are on the autism spectrum.

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