Is Social Categorization the Missing Link Between Weak Central Coherence and Theory of Mind Abilities in Autism?

Thursday, May 12, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
D. Skorich, T. Gash, K. Stalker, A. May, L. Talipski, M. Hall, A. Dolstra and B. Gunningham, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is currently understood as a 'fractionated' disorder, composed of separate but co-occurring clusters of features. At present, no common causative mechanism has been identified to explain why these different clusters of features co-occur in the disorder. In the current research, we present evidence that the cognitive process of social categorization could explain the co-occurrence of at least two of these clusters: those related to Theory of Mind (ToM) dysfunction and to Weak Central Coherence (WCC).

Objectives: To determine whether social categorization might be the missing link between WCC and ToM dysfunction in ASD.

Methods:  Participants from the general population were asked to complete a category confusion task, in which hierarchically-embedded categories and social information were made to co-vary at the local level, the global level, both levels simultaneously, or at neither level. Participants were then asked to infer the mental states of novel category members, and to complete the Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ).

Results: Results revealed a positive relationship between AQ and categorization at the local level, and a positive relationship between AQ and mental state inference at the local level, when there was competing covariation at both the local and global levels. The pattern of social categorization was also found to predict the pattern of mental state inferences, thus demonstrating a causal relationship between central coherence and ToM abilities.

Conclusions:  These results provide preliminary evidence that WCC and ToM abilities in ASD might be related via a social categorization mechanism, and suggest the possibility of a more unified cognitive account of the disorder.