New ANU research into autism has the potential to completely change public perceptions towards the condition. While the disorder is understood as having different features which occur together but without a root cause, a new study has found a link between some of those features, and that some actually cause others.

Dr Daniel Skorich, of the Research School of Psychology, said that the implications for the research are profound, in the long-term including changes in ‘the way the disorder is diagnosed, new interventions techniques based around increasing “central coherence” rather than intervening directly with the social features, and new avenues in the search for the genetic and neurological basis of the disorder’.

It is already known that autism presents a cluster of features related to dysfunction in the cognitive system responsible for our ability to infer the thoughts and feelings of others, and which explains many of the social and communication problems. There is also a cluster of features related to what’s referred to as “weak central coherence” – a tendency to process information in a less integrated manner than a typically developing person would.

‘Our research has uncovered (very preliminary) evidence that the weak central coherence in autism causes the theory of mind problems’ Dr Skorich said.

This is some of the first research to be conducted in this area, and the first to find such results. Autism had generally been accepted as a ‘fractioned disorder’, in that it expressed itself in a number of features that were not known to have any links or a common cause. Dr Skorich said that the current research ‘is the only research that has explicitly linked weak central coherence and theory of mind dysfunction in a causative manner, and the only research out there at the moment that proposes a cognitive mechanism that binds the two’.

While Dr Skorich was very careful to label the research as only a preliminary finding, he also said that he and his students had convergent evidence from 3 other experiments, showing strong hope.

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