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Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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3.3 What do psychological theories tell us?

Each of the psychological theories outlined this week is based on research, and offers possible insights into the thinking processes and experiences of individuals with autism. A serious limitation to all the theories is that the experimental evidence tends to come from ‘high-functioning’ individuals, who are able to understand and comply with task instructions. Even within this group, there are individual differences in the pattern of responses, highlighting once again the heterogeneity of autism. Also, autistic females are often under-represented in psychological tests, and when they are tested, there are some differences in how they respond (Mandy et al., 2012).

None of the approaches considered offers insights into unusual sensory responses, such as hyper- and hyposensitivity to sounds and other sensory stimuli. These affect a majority of people on the spectrum, but in different ways, which makes it hard for researchers to identify common underlying factors. Some recent research in this field focuses on differentiating the sensory issues in autism into different profiles, as a first step towards explaining underlying causes (Tomchek et al., 2018).

Psychological theories and tasks do provide a useful reference point for research into how underlying neurobiological differences relate to the behavioural characteristics of autism. We turn to neurobiology next.