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

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Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. In the current experiment, we have operationalized mental state inferences as falling somewhere on a continuum from local to global. We do not believe, however, that mental state inferences so simply and straightforwardly map onto this local–global continuum in all situations. Rather, if mental state inferences rely crucially on social categorization as we propose, then all those factors that affect which particular social categories become salient (or activated) in a given context should equally impact on the activation of particular mental state inferences in context (including, for example, the accessibility of particular categories in memory relative to others, the degree of covariation between stimulus inputs and categories stored in memory, the perceiver’s goals in the current situation etc.). We chose to operationalize social categorization—and by extension mental state inferences—in the way we have in the current experiment simply because it most closely mirrors common operationalizations of weak central coherence in the ASD literature.

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Acknowledgments

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.

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Skorich, D.P., May, A.R., Talipski, L.A. et al. Is Social Categorization the Missing Link Between Weak Central Coherence and Mental State Inference Abilities in Autism? Preliminary Evidence from a General Population Sample. J Autism Dev Disord 46, 862–881 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-015-2623-2

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