Theoretical Explanations of ASD

Author: Connie Parr

Autistic disorder of today has the benefit of being recognized by psychiatry and trained medical personnel more so than in the begging when the term was first brought into the world. In 1943, Dr. Leo Kanner as the first to describe autism based on the tailed case descriptions of eleven children, eight boys and three girls, who “essential common characteristics” formed a unique syndrome (Singh, 2016). In these eleven children, the characteristics that were seen were: inability to relate themselves, extreme autistic aloneness, excellent rote memory, anxiously obsessive desire to maintenance of sameness, and relationship to people is altogether different (p. 22). This was only the beginning of the study of autism. It would go on and would be studied with children with the same characteristics. In his studies, he developed the “refrigerator mother theory” to the children causing the autism along with feeling that these children were schizophrenic and psychotic (p. 23).

In the 1960’s, Dr. Bernard Rimland, a psychologist and apparent of a child with autism, was the first to challenge Dr. Kanner description and work especially the psychotic theory (Singh, 2016). Dr. Rimland, felt it was with neurological features and a genetic based, instead of a psychological disorder caused by hostile mothers (p. 23). Dr. Rimland’s studies and the book he had written seemed to be the beginning of a new area that science could be pushed into more research.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) now is classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder that encompasses a range of difficulties in social communication and behavior that first appear in infancy or early childhood (Flamez, et al., 2016). Characteristics of ASD is seen in social activities, communication and social interaction impairments along with restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interest, or activities (Flamez, et al., 2016). Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (2017) states about 1 in 50 children have been diagnosed with ASD. It went onto say that it is four to eight times more common in the male population than with females. Flamez, et al., also commented that age of onset is very clear with most parents recognizing that before the age of two children are losing their developmental ground (2016). There are clear developmental delay or a plateau in the emergence of typical developmental milestones. A second pattern involves a developmental regression, or loss of documented skills over time, then with the ASD child demonstrating declining trajectories of social communication behavior and loss of skills (Flamez, et al., 2016).

Now that the beginning of Autism has been discussed along with the symptoms, let us look at the theories of what is believed to be a theory of autism. Two theories of autism is the metalizing theory and the broken mirror theory according to Hamilton (2009). In the mentalist theory, also known as the theory of mind, it is based on the belief and finding that children with autism have specific difficulties with false belief tasks and with pretend play (Hamilton, 2009). Hamilton that these stated that there are symptoms of an inability to represent other people’s mental state, which are too many social and communicative interactions, a specific cognitive deficit in representing mental states that could give rise to a much broader array of behavioral difficulties in the social domain (p. 881). It is an inability to represent an abstract mental states would impact on simpler social behaviors (p. 881).

Mirror neurons were discovered in the macaque monkey which responds to the actions of self and others and on the neuroimaging evidence for an equivalent mirror neuron system in the human brain (Hamilton, 2009). In other words, the mirror neurons can match their actions to others, being nice, throwing fits, manners, and more. If the mirror neurons are broken, the autistic child cannot match the recognition of actions and social behaviors of others, such as emotions (p.881). Thus Hamilton named this the Broken Mirror Theory, the broken mirror theory also is dysfunctional in autism (p. 881). Both of these theories have been seen on MRI studies, so thus does that make them true? Certainly more studies have to be done to determine this, but both certainly make sense. Neuroimaging results are now emerging to support the idea of a hierarchical organization of goals and actions in the human brain (Hamilton, 2009). The question to ask here, is how much the autistic child understands. If the autism is severe, then they need much more support than if the autism is mild (this one used to be called Asperger’s but in the DSM V it is now under just Autism). Definitely more research needs to be done in this area.

Another idea that has been discussed is the concepts of empathizing and systemizing. They are derived from two core domains of cognition: folk psychology and folk physics. Folk psychology is referred to as understanding social psychological or intentional, agency and is used to deduce the agent’s actions (Zee et al., 2021). Folk psychology falls more into the Theory of Mind. Folk physics is referred to as understanding physical events and is used to deduce the cause of a non-agents movement (Zee et al., 2021). The low empathizing skills are responsible for the social difficulties that individuals with autism experience and the high empathizing skills are accountable for the presence of restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interest, or activates that are required in the DSM V (p. 322). This writer believes that the empathizing and systemizing theories lead more to identification of autism and should be researched further.

The final theory that was found would be the immunizations cause autism. The following was found on the Autism Science Foundation web site, 2017:

 Nearly 8 out of 10 physicians report at least one vaccine refusal from a parent.

 8% report refusals for more than 10% of children in their practice.

 18% of Americans say vaccines cause autism

 30% of Americans are not sure.

In England, a physician by the name of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, wrote in the late 90’s and it hit the media, that the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) is the cause of the Autism spectrum disorder. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He felt that it was the preservative that made the children autistic. By 2010 Dr. Wakefield was proven wrong and was stripped of his medical license and he reports were deemed an elaborate fraud. In the meantime more children were getting sick from not having the vaccines (Autism Science Foundation, 2017). If one would stop and think, the time/age that the toddlers got the vaccine of the MMR was the time that the development of language, socialization, and other skills were developing. So why not have every child react to the vaccine? No one would listen as this physician continued to cause panic. It was a great point when he was deemed a fraud, but the seed was planted in parent’s minds and it took much education to bring them back to reality.

Autism is actually a group of brain-based disorders that affect a person’s behavior as well as the social and communication skills. Regardless of the classification of autism, every person diagnosed with autism has some level of impairment in three areas: social, communication and behavior (Autism Science Foundation, 2017). 15% of children can be identified with a specific genetic abnormality. Like ADHD that can identify the genetic factors, Autism cannot do that as yet. With the better genetic factors becoming available, it will certainly be in the future (p. 6).

One other theory that should be discussed as with many childhood factors is the prenatal care of the mother. What kind of prenatal exposure did the mom have? What kind of air pollution was she exposed to? Was she taking drugs during her pregnancy especially for a treatable illness like epilepsy? Did she have any illness during her pregnancy like the flu or high fevers? Toxic environments are a huge cause of conditions.

Factors that are believed to have high possibilities are the prenatal factors, history of the mom, environmental factors and toxins. We all should be very thankful that it has been proven that the vaccines do not cause autism. Attached is a graph that shows the ingredients and more information about the vaccines (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017).

The mirroring neuron theory should be explored more as that was very specific. It will be interesting the more it is researched. Basically when everything is done, it should be the prenatal care until research can prove other things and the ideas that have been written about here.


Autism Science Foundation, Inc. 2017.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013.

Flamez, B. & Sheperis, C. (2016) Diagnosing and Treating Children and Adolescents: A guide

for Mental Health Professionals. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Hamilton, A. (2009). Research review: Goals, intentions and mental states: challenges

for theories of autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry,50 (8), 881-892.


Singh, J. (2016). Multiple Autisms Spectrums of Advocacy and Genomic Science. University

Of Minnesota Press.

Zee, E. & Derksen, J. (2021). The power of systemizing in autism. Child Psychiatry &

Human Development, 52, 321-331.