Part of the Neurodevelopmental Disorders and Intellectual Disability Seminar Series
Speaker: Professor Gene Fisch from NYU
In their seminal article, ‘Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”?’, the authors, Simon Baron-Cohen, Alan Leslie and Uta Frith  proposed a novel paradigm to explain a central element of social impairment in children diagnosed as autistic (AD). Much research has been undertaken and many manuscripts published since their paper went to print. The purpose of this presentation is to examine whether Theory of Mind (ToM) – or lack thereof – is a valid model for explaining abnormal social behavior in children with AD. ToM is defined as “the ability to impute mental states to oneself and to others” and “the ability to make inferences about what other people believe to be the case” [Baron-Cohen et al., 1985]. The impetus for their model was provided by a paper published earlier by Premack and Woodruff , “Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?” Later research in chimpanzees did not support a ToM in primates, indicating that the study by Premack and Woodruff lacked validity. From the outset, ToM as a neurocognitive model of autism has had many shortcomings – methodological, logical, and empirical. Other assumptions that form the basis for a ToM, such as its universality in all children in all cultures and socioeconomic conditions, are not supported by many studies. The age at which a ToM emerges, or events that herald the emergence of a ToM, are too often not corroborated empirically. Recent findings concerning mirror neurons, their location and interconnections in brain, their relationship to social behavior and language, and the effect of lesions in these areas on speech, language and social behavior, strongly suggests that a neurobiological as opposed to neurocognitive model of autism is a more parsimonious explanation for the social and behavioral phenotypes observed in autism.