Since the beginning of the modern era of autism research in the 1980s, issues of social cognition and the development of the social brain have been of central interest to researchers. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first annual meeting of the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR). At this year’s meeting, it becomes clear that the growth in social cognitive neuroscience over the past two decades has greatly enriched autism science. For those unfamiliar with the term, social cognitive neuroscience is the study of the brain systems involved in the causes and effects of social behavior and interaction. Some of these include brain systems involved in thinking about other people’s thoughts or intentions, empathy, social motivation, and the influence of social attention on an individual’s thinking and emotions.
At the same time, research with and for autistic people has enriched social cognitive neuroscience and understanding of how our social minds develop. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex and heterogeneous part of the human condition or neurodiversity. It is linked to a variety of life outcomes, from “disorders” or the profound challenges that affect about 30 percent of those with minimal speech and intellectual disabilities to “differences” between people with above-average skills and performance.
Regardless of their results, however, people on the autism spectrum take a different path of social-cognitive neurodevelopment that seems to begin in childhood. For example, many struggle with social cognitive mentalization, also known as the “theory of mind” – the mental representation of other people’s thoughts, perspectives, beliefs, intentions, or emotions that enable us to understand or predict their behavior.
Social cognitive neuroscience tells us that brain systems of the medial frontal cortex, temporal cortex, and parietal cortex, as well as reward centers of the brain, enable mentalization. Accordingly, differences in the development and / or transmission of information across this distributed social cognitive brain network can contribute to differences in mentalization among autistic people. These differences can lead to a range of outcomes, from problems in the ability to mentalize to changes in the spontaneous use of mentalization or the motivation and effort associated with mentalization during social interactions.
These observations are informative but do not address fundamental questions about how social-cognitive brain systems develop or why their development might be different for people with autism. These questions are essential in autism science because understanding the early course of social cognitive neuron development provides the best opportunity to mitigate the profoundly negative effects that social cognitive differences can have on some autistic people. Coincidentally, this motivation to understand the very early development of our social brains may affect broader understanding of social-cognitive neuroscience and human nature. As it turns out, one key to understanding how our social brains evolve can come from observations of childhood social attention.
As early as six to twelve months of age, some infants who are diagnosed with autism show differences in the development of social awareness. They look at people’s faces and eyes less frequently than other infants and are less likely to coordinate their attention with another person for a common point of view or point of reference or “shared attention.” Infants with neurotypical development follow the direction of gaze or gesture of other people or guide the gaze of other people in order to gain mutual attention and exchange information through a common perceptual perspective.
Developing the ability to socially coordinate attention is important in and of itself. For example, every teacher’s admonition to students to “take care!” Is really a request to “take care of who I am [the teacher] take care of. “Mutual attention is crucial for social competence at any age. Adolescents and adults who do not follow the rapid changes in mutual attention in social interactions, initiate them or cannot join them, can in their ability to relate and to relate be impaired.
It is just as important that mutual attention is also an early component of social cognitive mentalization. Whenever infants socially coordinate attention with other people, they are practicing perceptual perspectives. They do this hundreds, if not thousands, of times in early development; It optimizes aspects of social brain development that subsequently support the ability to have a mental perspective. Mental perspectives are synonymous with mentalization and our ability to understand other people’s thoughts, beliefs, and intentions. Indeed, several studies provide evidence of a significant overlap in the brain systems involved in collective attention and social-cognitive mentalization.
Accordingly, differences in early social attention are believed to contribute to differences in neurological development of social cognitive mentalization in some to many people with autism. Research also suggests that differences in systems that regulate the motivation for social attention may play a role in this aspect of developing autism, although the nature of that motivation is not understood. One possibility is that decreased motivation to care for faces can lead to a critical early difference in social attention.
Alternatively, differences in the “eye contact effect” can influence the development of social attention. The eye contact effect is a phenomenon in which the awareness of being the object of the attention of others triggers an arousal response that improves the stimulus and information processing during the coordination of social attention. When we are aware that other people are looking at us, changes occur in our mental processes that can benefit social learning. Several studies suggest that people with autism may be less responsive or less aware of the object of others’ attention.
Hence, autism science hypothesizes that the first step in human social neurocognitive development could involve months of social attention coordination practice with infant caregivers. Additionally, our response to other people’s eye contact can provide an early motivational attitude that prioritizes the development of infants’ social attention and the development of our social brain. In particular, recent studies suggest that mimicking the behavior of toddlers with autism, which is likely to affect a child’s awareness that another person is looking at them, can improve collective attention and language development.
The most basic lesson we can draw from all of these observations about the evolution of our social minds is, of course, that we are all alike as different, regardless of our pathways of neurodevelopment, and that autistic people can teach us much about nature human nature.
This is an opinion and analysis article.
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