What are the signs of an Autism Spectrum Disorder?
The individual characteristics of each autistic person can be very different. However there are areas in which the disorder occurs and which help define what is now increasingly called a form of “neurodiversity”:
– reduced communication capabilities: there is a difficulty in verbal and non-verbal communication, including the understanding of verbal and non-verbal language. Autistic people may have difficulties in articulating language and sounds and tend to interpret language in a literal way, not grasping the nuances such as irony or puns;
– lack of imagination: narrow interests, rigid, repetitive and stereotyped behaviours and habits;
– sensory alterations: little sensitivity or hypersensitivity to different kinds of stimuli that can cause defence behaviours or resorting to sensory stimuli;
– reduced social interaction: the interest and the ability to initiate a conversation or other form of social interaction, or to respond to the social openings of others is compromised or abnormal;
– anxiety and abnormal emotional response: abnormal manifestations of emotions, difficulty or inability to recognise emotions in others and adapt behaviour accordingly;
– lack in executive functioning skills: they concern the ability to plan, organise and change behaviour based on context and circumstances, and possible inadequate responses;
– altered attention: difficulty in changing the object of attention and one’s actions and routines, in dealing with changes, and in moving from one activity to another.
Autism spectrum disorder can also be associated with:
– Intellectual impairment;
– Speech impairment;
– Other medical or genetic conditions;
– Other neuro-developmental, mental or behavioural disorder.s
Theory of Mind autism
Autistic children exhibit isolation, passivity, or petulance. They treat people and things in the same way. They cannot show concerns for other individuals’ emotions, or understand their state of mind.
This social ability, which is the basis of emotional intelligence, is defined as “theory of mind”. It consists in the ability to imagine how other individuals feel in certain situations, perceiving what they feel, think and wish.
Basically, it is the ability to understand other people’s or ones’ own state of mind and intuitively assume what people think in a given situation, so as to be able to predict their behaviour. The theory of mind does not appear to depend on general cognitive abilities but appears as a distinct aspect of human cognition.
It would seem that the origin of the theory of mind is the result of millions of years of human evolution and it is a unique characteristic of our species. The development of this skill would lie in the evolutionary advantage of recognising a fellow man’s emotions of fear or anger, which provide the advantage of being able to save one’s self from potential danger.
A special circuit has been identified in the human brain, that processes information from social interactions. It is called the social brain and includes specific areas including the medial prefrontal cortex, the temporoparietal junction, the anterior cingulate, the insula and the amygdala.
These areas are specifically activated when subjects try to recognise thoughts and feelings of other individuals, and they have been shown to be scarcely activated in autistic individuals.
When does the Theory of Mind Develop?
The theory of mind normally appears after the second year of age. Initial signs of the development of the theory of mind include the child’s capability of looking in the direction where you are pointing and in their playful activities. For example, it can be observed when a child plays “pretend” games where they are a firefighter who is turning off a fire or a mother who is feeding and cradling their baby doll. By the age of 4, children will have already developed an explicit theory of mind, and they can therefore understand what other people feel in certain situations. These signs of the development of the theory of mind are missing both in autistic children and in those affected by Asperger’s syndrome, who do not have any impairment in their verbal communication capabilities and have a normal or above-average IQ.