Autism / Psychosis: Agency and Joint Attention
A recent study by Tomosello’s group indicates that children with autism, can help a stranger pick a pen (and thus can apparently infer goal and intentional states of others), but cannot indulge in co-operative behavior that may involve shared goals and shared attention.
As per Translating Autism blog:
This fresh-off-the-press article comes to us from Dr. Michael Tomasello’s group at the Max Planck institute in Germany. The authors present the results of two studies looking at helping and cooperation in children with autism. The first study compared 15 children with ASD (14 with Autism and 1 with PDD-NOS) with 15 children with other non-ASD developmental delays (40 months of age average). During this study the children were place in situations that either called for helping behaviors (such as picking up a pen that the researcher dropped and could not reach) or a similar situation that did not necessarily call for helping behaviors (such as when the researcher threw the pen on purpose and did not attempt to pick it up). Both groups (children with Autism and children with other developmental delays) showed more helping behaviors when placed in the situation that called for such behaviors. That is, when the experimenter was “trying” to reach an out-of-reach object, both groups were more likely to help than when the experimenter was not trying to reach for the object. The authors concluded that these behaviors showed that both groups understood the adult’s goals and were motivated to help her. In the second study, the same children were placed in situations that called for “cooperative” behaviors, such as a task requiring them to work with the researcher by simultaneously pulling at two cylinders to reach a toy. The results showed that children with autism were less likely than kids with other developmental delays to successfully complete the cooperation tasks. Furthermore, the children with autism were less likely to initiate additional attempts to complete the task when the task was interrupted. The authors concluded that, at least at this developmental period, children with autism seem to understand the social components of situations that call for “helping” behaviors and engage in helping behaviors, but only when such help does not require interpersonal cooperation. However, when cooperation is required to complete the task, these children are less likely to correctly engage with another partner, possibly because the unique “shared” component of cooperation. That is, cooperation requires shared goals, shared attention, and a shared plan of action, processes that seem to be affected in children with autism.
Here is the abstract of the Tomosello paper:
Helping and cooperation are central to human social life. Here, we report two studies investigating these social behaviors in children with autism and children with developmental delay. In the first study, both groups of children helped the experimenter attain her goals. In the second study, both groups of children cooperated with an adult, but fewer children with autism performed the tasks successfully. When the adult stopped interacting at a certain moment, children with autism produced fewer attempts to re-engage her, possibly indicating that they had not formed a shared goal/shared intentions with her. These results are discussed in terms of the prerequisite cognitive and motivational skills and propensities underlying social behavior
From the above it is clear that children with Autism lack shared attention: a pre-requisite for language and their language impediments may also be due to this fact. If we contrast this with Schizophrenia/ Psychosis ( and assuming they are at opposite ends) it is not hard to see that with too much shared goals/ intentions/ attention, one may likely confuse between one’s own goals and those of others and in a joint scenario be more susceptible to delusions of control/ though insertion, wherein the shared space has become so vast that one seems to be controlled by the other or intruded by the other. thus , I propose that children susceptible to psychosis should show enhanced cooperating behavior indicating an overactive shared goals/ attention module.
Another interesting study I would like to discuss is the recent reporting of a dysfunctional ‘self’ module/model in a Trust game as compared to the ‘other’ module/ model. Here is how the Science Daily describes the Trust game that was used in the game.
In the trust game, one player receives an amount of money and then sends whatever amount he or she wants to the other player via computer message. The amount sent is tripled and the player at the other end then decides how much of the tripled amount to send back. The game has several rounds.
The ‘self’ module was identified as the brain areas (cingulate cortex) involved when making the decision to share the initial amount of money with another person. The ‘other’ module was defined as network region activated when the decision of the other player was revealed to them.
It was found that autistics showed lowered activity in the ‘self’ module. The authors construe this as evidence that they have a defective self concept.
“To have a good self concept, you have to be able to decide if the shared outcome is due to the other person or due to you,” said Montague. “If people can’t see themselves as a distinct entities at deeper levels, there is a disconnect.”
I beg to differ. In my view the findings can be explained using the joint attention / goal/ outcome defect outlined above. Although I believe that their explanation that people with autism may have a diminished sense of self or Agency also makes intuitive sense and I have argued the same previously. I contrast that with the Psychotic case where one attributes too much agency- even to inanimate objects or animals for example. However, in this case a more parsimonious explanation can be that the autistics were not able to model the others goal as their own (the familiar simulation argument) and could not indulged in joint goal intention and thus failed to optimally use the ‘self’ module i/e failed to take whatever actions were needed for a co-operative and trustful behavior .
The Friths adequately sum that up:
In a preview in the journal Neuron, Chris and Uta Frith wrote, “This is an exciting result because it suggests that some mechanisms of social interaction are intact in these high-functioning cases. What is the critical difference between the self phase and the other phase? We believe that the simple distinction of self versus other is not adequate. “It involves higher-order mentalizing: you care what another person thinks of you, and even further, you care that the other person trusts you. You would not do this when playing against a computer. In autism there is no difference,” wrote the Friths, who are at University College London.
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