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New theory on autism and social interaction

By Jamie Salter

Research suggests people with autism may not have as much difficulty imagining the thoughts of others as was previously believed.

An article recently published in the journal Psychological Bulletin by researchers from the University of NSW and Ghent University in Belgium suggests the brains of people on the autism spectrum can infer what others think — contrary to a commonly held view that they find it hard to imagine another’s thoughts.

Through a critical analysis of more than 50 neurological imaging studies, the researchers found one of the main areas of the brain used to understand others is active when detecting differences between what one thinks, and what others think.

Called the temporoparietal junction, this brain region is often found to be less active in people on the autism spectrum.

The researchers argue the brain in people on the spectrum may be able to grasp what others think, but then may have a harder time processing the degree to which others think differently from themselves.

Ghent University's postdoctoral researcher Eliane Deschrijver said people on the autism spectrum may have difficulty with recognising and adapting to the differences in mental states between themselves and the person they are interacting with.

“If individuals on the spectrum notice another person trying to steer away the conversation towards an own interest, for instance, they may not entirely process a mismatch in thinking as a cue to stop talking,” Dr Deschrijver said.

“This may lead them to oversharing their own thoughts, or the opposite may happen, too.

“Understanding another person’s different thoughts may actually keep an individual on the spectrum from verbalising their own thoughts, even if this would be socially expected within the given context.

“Differences in engaging in back-and-forth conversation are thought to lie at the heart of the autism spectrum.

“We call our new theory of human social cognition ‘relational mentalising’.”