Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 13, Issue 3, pp 317-324

First online:

Self-recognition deficits in autism: Syndrome-specific or general developmental delay?

  • Michael FerrariAffiliated withDepartment of Individual and Family Studies, University of Delaware
  • , Wendy S. MatthewsAffiliated withRutgers Medical School

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Many reports can be found in the theoretical literature that refer to a lack of self-awareness or a failure to distinguish self from nonself as a characteristic of autistic children. The empirical literature also contains reports of behaviors in autistic children that have often been taken as reflective of a failure to differentiate self, i.e., pronominal reversal, gaze aversion. The present study investigated the development of self-recognition in 15 autistic children in an effort to determine whether failures of self-recognition were of possible diagnostic significance for the syndrome or rather were reducible to general indices of developmental function, i.e., mental age. Fifty-three percent of the sample showed clear self-recognition. On the basis of a developmental assessment and data from a teacher questionnaire, these children were found to be functioning at mental ages akin to developmental norms for self-recognition. Those who failed to show self-recognition had mental ages below the developmental level at which many children recognize themselves and significantly lower than those autistic children who showed self-recognition. The results suggest that even when autistic children fail to recognize their self-images, this failure can be taken not as evidence for a syndrome-specific deficit but as a reflection of a general developmental delay.