Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 46, Issue 3, pp 862–881 | Cite as

Is Social Categorization the Missing Link Between Weak Central Coherence and Mental State Inference Abilities in Autism? Preliminary Evidence from a General Population Sample

  • Daniel P. SkorichEmail author
  • Adrienne R. May
  • Louisa A. Talipski
  • Marnie H. Hall
  • Anita J. Dolstra
  • Tahlia B. Gash
  • Beth H. Gunningham
Original Paper


We explore the relationship between the ‘theory of mind’ (ToM) and ‘central coherence’ difficulties of autism. We introduce covariation between hierarchically-embedded categories and social information—at the local level, the global level, or at both levels simultaneously—within a category confusion task. We then ask participants to infer the mental state of novel category members, and measure participants’ autism-spectrum quotient (AQ). Results reveal a positive relationship between AQ and the degree of local/global social categorization, which in turn predicts the pattern of mental state inferences. These results provide preliminary evidence for a causal relationship between central coherence and ToM abilities. Implications with regard to ToM processes, social categorization, intervention, and the development of a unified account of autism are discussed.


Autism Weak central coherence Theory of mind Categorization Social categorization Self-categorization 



We would like to thank Anne Aimola-Davies, Laura Birchall, Alex Haslam, Ken Mavor, Katie Stalker, Lidan Zheng, Carla Mazefsky and two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on this research.

Author Contributions

All authors made substantial contributions to the design of the experiment reported in this paper; to the acquisition, analysis, and interpretation of the data; to the drafting of the manuscript, and to all revisions made; and all authors have given final approval of the version to be published.


  1. Adamson, L. B., Deckner, D. F., & Bakeman, R. (2010). Early interests and joint engagement in typical development, autism, and down syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40(6), 665–676.PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Aimola Davies, A. M. (2004). Disorders of spatial orientation and awareness: Unilateral neglect. In J. Ponsford (Ed.), Cognitive and behavioural rehabilitation: From neurobiology to clinical practice (pp. 175–223). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  3. Almeida, R. A., Dickinson, J. E., Maybery, M. T., Badcock, J. C., & Badcock, D. R. (2010). A new step towards understanding embedded figures test performance in the autism spectrum: The radial frequency search task. Neuropsychologia, 48(2), 374–381.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5™ (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing Inc.Google Scholar
  5. Ames, D. R. (2004). Inside the mind readers’ tool kit: Projection and stereotyping in mental state inference. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(3), 340–353.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Ames, D. R., Weber, E. U., & Zou, X. (2012). Mind-reading in strategic interaction: The impact of perceived similarity on projection and stereotyping. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 117(1), 96–110.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Baron-Cohen, S. (1994). The mindreading system: New directions for research. Current Psychology of Cognition, 13, 724–750.Google Scholar
  8. Baron-Cohen, S. (2005). The empathizing system: A revision of the 1994 model of the mindreading system. In B. Ellis & D. Bjorklund (Eds.), Origins of the social mind: Evolutionary psychology and child development (pp. 468–492). New York: Guildford Press.Google Scholar
  9. Baron-Cohen, S., & Goodhart, F. (1994). The ‘seeing-leads-to-knowing’ deficit in autism: The Pratt and Bryant probe. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 12(3), 397–401.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Baron-Cohen, S., Jolliffe, T., Mortimore, C., & Robertson, M. (1997). Another advanced test of theory of mind: Evidence from very high functioning adults with autism or Asperger syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 38(7), 813–822.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Baron, R. M., & Kenny, D. A. (1986). The moderator–mediator variable distinction in social psychological research: Conceptual, strategic, and statistical considerations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(6), 1173–1182.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a ‘theory of mind’? Cognition, 21, 37–46.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J., & Clubley, E. (2001). The autism-spectrum quotient (AQ): Evidence from Asperger Syndrome/high-functioning autism, males and females, scientists and mathematicians. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(1), 5–17.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Blanz, M. (1999). Accessibility and fit as determinants of the salience of social categorizations. European Journal of Social Psychology, 29(1), 43–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Brosnan, M. J., Scott, F. J., Fox, S., & Pye, J. (2004). Gestalt processing in autism: Failure to process perceptual relationships and the implications for perceptual understanding. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45(3), 459–469.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Brunsdon, V. E. A., & Happé, F. (2014). Exploring the ‘fractionation’ of autism at the cognitive level. Autism, 18(1), 17–30.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Burnette, C. P., Mundy, P. C., Meyer, J. A., Sutton, S. K., Vaughan, A. E., & Charak, D. (2005). Weak central coherence and its relations to theory of mind and anxiety in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 35(1), 63–73.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Casanova, M. F., Buxhoeveden, D. P., & Brown, C. (2002). Clinical and macroscopic correlates of minicolumnar pathology in autism. Journal of Child Neurology, 17(9), 692–695.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Cialdini, R. B., Brown, S. L., Lewis, B. P., Luce, C., & Neuberg, S. L. (1997). Reinterpreting the empathy–altruism relationship: When one into one equals oneness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(3), 481–494.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Cornew, L., Dobkins, K. R., Akshoomoff, N., McCleery, J. P., & Carver, L. J. (2012). A typical social referencing in infant siblings of children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(12), 2611–2621.PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. DeYoung, C. G., Quilty, L. C., & Peterson, J. B. (2007). Between facets and domains: 10 aspects of the big five. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(5), 880–896.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Frith, U. (1989). Autism: Explaining the enigma. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  23. Frith, U., & Happé, F. (1994). Autism: Beyond ‘theory of mind’. Cognition, 50, 115–132.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Gastgeb, H. Z., Dundas, E. M., Minshew, N. J., & Strauss, M. S. (2012). Category formation in autism: Can individuals with autism form categories and prototypes of dot patterns? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(8), 1694–1704.PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Gastgeb, H. Z., Rump, K. M., Best, C. A., Minshew, N. J., & Strauss, M. S. (2009). Prototype formation in autism: Can individuals with autism abstract facial prototypes? Autism Research, 2(5), 279–284.PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Gastgeb, H. Z., Strauss, M. S., & Minshew, N. J. (2006). Do individuals with autism process categories differently? The effect of typicality and development. Child Development, 77(6), 1717–1729.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Ghaziuddin, M., Ghaziuddin, N., & Greden, J. (2002). Depression in persons with autism: Implications for research and clinical care. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32(4), 299–306.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Gillott, A., Furniss, F., & Walter, A. (2001). Anxiety in high-functioning children with autism. Autism, 5(3), 277–286.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Happé, F. G. (1995). The role of age and verbal ability in the theory of mind task performance of subjects with autism. Child Development, 66(3), 843–855.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Happé, F. G. (1996). Studying weak central coherence at low levels: Children with autism do not succumb to visual illusions. A research note. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 37(7), 873–877.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Happé, F. G. (1997). Central coherence and theory of mind in autism: Reading homographs in context. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 15(1), 1–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Happé, F. G., & Booth, R. D. (2008). The power of the positive: Revisiting weak coherence in autism spectrum disorders. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61(1), 50–63.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Happé, F., & Frith, U. (2006). The weak coherence account: Detail-focused cognitive style in autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36(1), 5–25.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Happé, F. G., & Ronald, A. (2008). The ‘fractionable autism triad’: A review of evidence from behavioral, genetic, cognitive and neural research. Neuropsychological Review, 18, 287–304.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Happé, F. G., Ronald, A., & Plomin, R. (2006). Time to give up on a single explanation for autism. Nature Neuroscience, 9(10), 1218–1220.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Heavey, L., Phillips, W., Baron-Cohen, S., & Rutter, M. (2000). The awkward moments test: A naturalistic measure of social understanding in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 30(3), 225–236.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Hobson, R. P. (1983). The autistic child’s recognition of age-related features of people, animals and things. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 1(4), 343–352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Hobson, R. P. (1987). The autistic child’s recognition of age-and sex-related characteristics of people. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 17(1), 63–79.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. Hobson, R. P. (1990). On the origins of self and the case of autism. Development and Psychopathology, 2(2), 163–181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Hobson, R. P., & Meyer, J. A. (2005). Foundations for self and other: A study in autism. Developmental science, 8(6), 481–491.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Jarrold, C., Butler, D. W., Cottington, E. M., & Jimenez, F. (2000). Linking theory of mind and central coherence bias in autism and in the general population. Developmental Psychology, 36(1), 126–138.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Jetten, J., Haslam, C., & Alexander, S. A. (Eds.). (2012). The social cure: Identity, health and well-being. New York: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  43. Jolliffe, T., & Baron-Cohen, S. (1997). Are people with autism and Asperger Syndrome faster than normal on the embedded figures test? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 38(5), 527–534.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Jolliffe, T., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2001). A test of central coherence theory: Can adults with high-functioning autism or Asperger syndrome integrate objects in context? Visual Cognition, 8(1), 67–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Klinger, L. G., & Dawson, G. (2001). Prototype formation in autism. Development and Psychopathology, 13(1), 111–124.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Lee, A., & Hobson, R. P. (1998). On developing self-concepts: A controlled study of children and adolescents with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 39(8), 1131–1144.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  47. Linville, P. W. (1987). Self-complexity as a cognitive buffer against stress-related illness and depression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(4), 663–676.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Love, B. C., Medin, D. L., & Gureckis, T. M. (2004). SUSTAIN: A network model of category learning. Psychological Review, 111(2), 309–332.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  49. McGarty, C. (1999). Categorization in social psychology. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  50. McGarty, C., Mavor, K. I., & Skorich, D. P. (2015). Social categorization. In J. D. Wright (Ed.), International encyclopedia of the social and behavioral sciences (2nd ed., pp. 186–191). New York, NY: Elsevier.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Meyer, J. A., & Hobson, R. P. (2004). Orientation in relation to self and other: The case of autism. Interaction Studies, 5(2), 221–244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Morgan, B., Maybery, M., & Durkin, K. (2003). Weak central coherence, poor joint attention, and low verbal ability: Independent deficits in early autism. Developmental Psychology, 39(4), 646–656.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  53. Mottron, L., Dawson, M., Soulieres, I., Hubert, B., & Burack, J. (2006). Enhanced perceptual functioning in autism: An update, and eight principles of autistic perception. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36(1), 27–43.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  54. Oakes, P. J., Haslam, S. A., & Turner, J. C. (1994). Stereotyping and social reality. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.Google Scholar
  55. Osterling, J., & Dawson, G. (1994). Early recognition of children with autism: A study of first birthday home videotapes. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 24(3), 247–257.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  56. Osterling, J. A., Dawson, G., & Munson, J. A. (2002). Early recognition of 1-year-old infants with autism spectrum disorder versus mental retardation. Development and Psychopathology, 14(2), 239–251.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  57. Palermo, R., Willis, M. L., Rivolta, D., McKone, E., Wilson, C. E., & Calder, A. J. (2011). Impaired holistic coding of facial expression and facial identity in congenital prosopagnosia. Neuropsychologia, 49(5), 1226–1235.PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  58. Pelicano, E., Maybery, M., Durkin, K., & Maley, A. (2006). Multiple cognitive capabilities/deficits in children with an autism spectrum disorder: ‘Weak’ central coherence and its relationship to theory of mind and executive control. Development and Psychopathology, 18, 77–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Plaisted, K., O’Riordan, M., & Baron-Cohen, S. (1998). Enhanced discrimination of novel, highly similar stimuli by adults with autism during a perceptual learning task. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 39(5), 765–775.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  60. Plaisted, K., Swettenham, J., & Rees, L. (1999). Children with autism show local precedence in a divided attention task and global precedence in a selective attention task. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 40(5), 733–742.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  61. Schacter, D. L. (1987). Memory, amnesia, and frontal lobe dysfunction. Psychobiology, 15(1), 21–36.Google Scholar
  62. Schuwerk, T., Vuori, M., & Sodian, B. (2015). Implicit and explicit theory of mind reasoning in autism spectrum disorders: The impact of experience. Autism, 19(4), 459–468.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  63. Senju, A., Southgate, V., White, S., & Frith, U. (2009). Mindblind eyes: An absence of spontaneous theory of mind in Asperger syndrome. Science, 325(5942), 883–885.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  64. Shah, A., & Frith, U. (1983). An islet of ability in autistic children: A research note. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 24(4), 613–620.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  65. Shah, A., & Frith, U. (1993). Why do autistic individuals show superior performance on the block design task? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 34(8), 1351–1364.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  66. Shteynberg, G. (2010). A silent emergence of culture: The social tuning effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(4), 683–689.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  67. Shteynberg, G. (2015). Shared attention. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(5), 579–590.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  68. Skorich, D. P., & Mavor, K. I. (2013). Cognitive load privileges memory-based over data-driven processing, not group-level over person-level processing. British Journal of Social Psychology, 52(3), 469–488.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  69. Sodian, B., Schuwerk, T., & Kristen, S. (2015). Implicit and spontaneous theory of mind reasoning in autism spectrum disorders. In M. Fitzgerald (Ed.), Autism spectrum disorderrecent advances. In Tech.Google Scholar
  70. Strauss, M. S., Newell, L. C., Best, C. A., Hannigen, S. F., Gastgeb, H. Z., & Giovannelli, J. L. (2012). The development of facial gender categorization in individuals with and without autism: The impact of typicality. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(9), 1847–1855.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  71. Sucksmith, E., Roth, I., & Hoekstra, R. A. (2011). Autistic traits below the clinical threshold: Reexamining the broader autism phenotype in the 21st century. Neuropsychology Review, 21(4), 360–389.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  72. Tager-Flusberg, H., & Sullivan, K. (1994). Predicting and explaining behavior: A comparison of autistic, mentally retarded and normal children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 35(6), 1059–1075.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  73. Tarrant, M., Dazeley, S., & Cottom, T. (2009). Social categorization and empathy for outgroup members. British Journal of Social Psychology, 48(3), 427–446.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  74. Taylor, S. E., Fiske, S. T., Etcoff, N. L., & Ruderman, A. J. (1978). Categorical and contextual bases of person memory and stereotyping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(7), 778–793.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Teunisse, J. P., & de Gelder, B. (2001). Impaired categorical perception of facial expressions in high-functioning adolescents with autism. Child Neuropsychology, 7(1), 1–14.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  76. Thomas, E. F., McGarty, C., & Mavor, K. I. (2009). Transforming “apathy into movement”: The role of prosocial emotions in motivating action for social change. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 13(4), 310–333.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  77. Turner, J. C., Hogg, M. A., Oakes, P. J., Reicher, S. D., & Wetherell, M. S. (1987). Rediscovering the social group: A self-categorization theory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  78. Turner, J. C., Oakes, P. J., Haslam, S. A., & McGarty, C. (1994). Self and collective: Cognition and social context. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, 454–463.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Van de Cruys, S., Evers, K., Van der Hallen, R., Van Eylen, L., Boets, B., de-Wit, L., & Wagemans, J. (2014). Precise minds in uncertain worlds: Predictive coding in autism. Psychological Review, 121(4), 649–675.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  80. Van Rooy, D. (2012). A connectionist ABM of social categorization processes. Advances in Complex Systems, 15(6), 1250077.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Yirmiya, N., Erel, O., Shaked, M., & Solomonica-Levi, D. (1998). Meta-analyses comparing theory of mind abilities of individuals with autism, individuals with mental retardation, and normally developing individuals. Psychological Bulletin, 124(3), 283–307.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daniel P. Skorich
    • 1
    Email author
  • Adrienne R. May
    • 1
  • Louisa A. Talipski
    • 1
  • Marnie H. Hall
    • 1
  • Anita J. Dolstra
    • 1
  • Tahlia B. Gash
    • 1
  • Beth H. Gunningham
    • 1
  1. 1.Research School of PsychologyThe Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

Personalised recommendations