Cognitive Theories in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Why Individuals with Autism Behave the Way They Do

  • Chris Induswe Olumula
  • George Mathenge Wairungu
Keywords: autism spectrum disorder, speech therapist, cognitive theories, behavioral cognitive therapy


Autism spectrum disorder is a neurological developmental condition characterized by deficits in socio-communication skills and presence of restricted interests and repetitive behaviors. The condition is lifelong commonly identifiable by the child’s third birthday. This article discusses cognitive theories of autism including the discredited refrigerator mother theory. Others theories include theory of mind deficit hypothesis, weak central coherence theory, executive dysfunction theory, and extreme male brain theory. Cognitive theories attempt to explain why individuals with ASD behave the way they do. Speech therapists and other members of multidisciplinary team need to understand reasons behind behavior and reactions of individuals with ASD. This in turn helps plan effective intervention strategies. It is also effective in counseling caregivers and related stake holders. This is an in-depth qualitative research that assumed descriptive research design. Relevant literature was reviewed from renowned peer reviewed journals.


Alamdari, S. B., Sadeghi Damavandi, M., Zarei, M., & Khosrowabadi, R. (2022). Cognitive theories of autism based on the interactions between brain functional networks. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 16, 828985.
Astington, J. W. & Dack, L. A. (2008). Theory of Mind. In M. M. Haith & J. B. Benson (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Infant and Early Childhood Development. Academic Press.
Auyeung, B., Baron-Cohen, S., Ashwin, E., Knickmeyer, R., Taylor, K., & Hackett, G. (2009). Fetal testosterone and autistic traits. British Journal of Psychology, 100, 1-22.
Barnes, A. (2023, Sep 21). 11 Fun Games to Play during Speech Therapy Practice. Available at
Baron-Cohen, S. (1991). Precursors to a theory of mind: Understanding attention in others. In A. Whiten (Ed.), Natural theories of mind: evolution, development, and simulation of everyday mindreading. Oxford, UK Cambridge, Massachusetts: B. Blackwell.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2002). The extreme male brain theory of autism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6(6) 248-254.
Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A.M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autisticchild have a “theory of mind?” Cognition, 21(1), 37-46.
Behavior TLC (2021, Jan 5). 5 Ways To Help Your Child With Autism Show Empathy. Available at
Booth, R. D. L., & Happé, F. G. E. (2018). Evidence of Reduced Global Processing in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 48(4), 1397–1408.
Bruner, J. S. (1981). Intention in the structure of action and interaction. In L. P. Lipsitt & C. K. Rovee-Collier (Eds.), Advances in infancy research (Vol. 1, pp. 41–56). Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex Publishing Corporation.
Canitano, R., Luchetti, A., & Zapella, M. (2005). Epilepsy, electroencephalographic abnormalities and regression in children with autism. Journal of Child Neurology, 20, 27-30.
Catharine, P. (2019, September 5). New evidence challenges 'extreme male brain' theory of autism. Available at
Corbett, B. A., Constantine, L. J., Hendren, R., Rocke, D., & Ozonoff, S. (2009). Examining executive functioning in children with autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and typical development. Psychiatry Research, 166(2), 210-222.
Dahary, H., Rimmer, C., Kaedbey, M., & Quintin, E. M. (2023). A Systematic Review of Shared Social Activities for Children on the Autism Spectrum and Their Peers. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 10(4), 771-792.
Demetriou, E. A., DeMayo, M. M., & Guastella, A. J. (2019). Executive Function in Autism Spectrum Disorder: History, Theoretical Models, Empirical Findings, and Potential as an Endophenotype. Frontiers in psychiatry, 10, 753.
DiGiuseppe, R., David, D., & Venezia, R. (2016). Cognitive theories. In J. C. Norcross, G. R. VandenBos, D. K. Freedheim, & B. O. Olatunji (Eds.), APA handbook of clinical psychology: Theory and research (pp. 145–182). American Psychological Association. Available from.
Eijk, V., L., & Zietsch, B. P. (2021). Testing the extreme male brain hypothesis: Is autism spectrum disorder associated with a more male-typical brain? Autism research: Official Journal of the International Society for Autism Research, 14(8), 1597–1608.
Elliott, R. (2003). Executive functions and their disorders. Imaging in clinical neuroscience. British Medical Bulletin, 65(1), 49-59.
Emily, U. (2019, September 3). Study challenges idea that autism is caused by an overly masculine brain. Available at
Faroy, M., Meiri, G., & Arbelle, S. (2016). DSM-5 and autism: Diagnostic changes and clinical implications in early childhood. Harefuah, 155(5), 291-5.
Fombonne E. (1999). The epidemiology of autism: a review. Psychological medicine, 29(4), 769–786.
Frith, U. (1989). Autism: Explaining the Enigma. Blackwell: Oxford.
Frith, U. (2003). Autism: Explaining the enigma (2nd ed.) Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Gernsbacher, M. A., & Yergeau, M. (2019). Empirical Failures of the Claim That Autistic People Lack a Theory of Mind. Archives of scientific psychology, 7(1), 102–118.
Gnanathusharan, R. & Peter, M. (2007) Cognitive theories of autism. Developmental Review, 27(2), 224-260.
Gordon, R. M. (1996). Radical simulationism. In P. Carruthers & P. K. Smith (Eds.), Theories of theories of mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Greenberg, D. M., Varun, W., Carrie A. & Simon Baron-Cohen, S. (2018). Testing the Empathizing–Systemizing theory of sex differences and the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism in half a million people. Journal of Psychological and Cognitive Sciences, 115(48), 12152-12157.
Hannah, F. (2019, May 1). The extreme male brain, explained. Available at
Happi, F.G.E. (1997). Central coherence and theory of mind in autism: Reading homographs in context. British Journal of Developmenta1 Psychology, 15, l-12.
Hemmers, J., Baethge, C., Vogeley, K. & Falter-Wagner, C.M. (2022) Are Executive Dysfunctions Relevant for the Autism-Specific Cognitive Profile? Front. Psychiatry, 13, 886588.
Hill, E. L. (2004). Executive dysfunction in autism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(1), 26-32.
Hodges, H., Fealko, C., & Soares, N. (2020). Autism spectrum disorder: definition, epidemiology, causes, and clinical evaluation. Translational pediatrics, 9(Suppl 1), S55–S65.
Itard, J. M. G. (1806/1962). The wild boy of Areyron (G. Humphrey & M. Humphrey, Trans). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact. The Nervous Child, 2, 217-250.
Kendra, C. (2023, April 4). How the Theory of Mind Helps Us Understand Others. Available at
Kirk, S. A., Gallagher, J. J., & Anastasiow, N. J. (1993). Educating exceptional children (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Lukito, S., Jones, C. R. G., Pickles, A., Baird, G., Happé, F., Charman, T., & Simonoff, E. (2017). Specificity of executive function and theory of mind performance in relation to attention-deficit/hyperactivity symptoms in autism spectrum disorders. Molecular Autism, 8, 60.
Mang'ombe, A., & Wairungu, G. (2021). Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Review of contemporary literature on Common Communication Difficulties and Recommended Research Based Intervention Strategies. International Journal of Research and Scientific Innovation, 8(4), 2321–2705.
Marcy, W. (2022, April 21). What Is Central Coherence in Childhood? Available at
Miller, J. J. (2018, May). Assessing Executive Functioning in Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Available at
Moseley, R. (2018). Male brain theory of autism. Available at
Muthoni, J., & Wairungu, G. M. (2023). Comorbidity in Autism Spectrum Disorder, Prevalence and its Implication: What Speech Therapists Need to Know. European Journal of Science, Innovation and Technology, 3(6), 147-157. Retrieved from
Ndiema, D., C., & Wairungu, G., M. (2021). Learners with Autism Spectrum Disorder: What Socio- Communication Difficulties Entail and the Recommended Research Based Intervention Strategies. International Journal of Research and Innovation in Social Science, 5(12), 413-419.
Ochuka, E., & Wairungu, G., (2023). Sensory Processing Disorder in Autism Spectrum Disorder: What Speech Therapist Should Know. European Journal of Science and Technology, 3, 147-157.
Olga, B. (2021, October 20). Theory of Mind (and alleged lack of it) in autism. Available at
Owen, A. M. (1997). Cognitive planning in humans; neuropsychological, neuroanatomical and neuropharmacological perspectives. Progress in Neurobiology, 53(4), 431-450.
Panerai, S., Tasca, D., Ferri, R., Genitori D'Arrigo, V., & Elia, M. (2014). Executive Functions and Adaptive Behaviour in Autism Spectrum Disorders with and without Intellectual Disability. Psychiatry journal, 2014, 941809.
Patty, L. (2023, Jan 25). What is Central Coherence and What Does it Have to Do with Autism? Available at
Pennington, B.F. & Ozonoff, S. (1996) Executive Functions and Developmental Psychopathology. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 37, 51-87.
Peterson, C., Slaughter, V., Moore, C., & Wellman, H. M. (2016). Peer social skills and theory of mind in children with autism, deafness, or typical development. Developmental psychology, 52(1), 46–57.
Peterson, C., Wellman, H., & Liu, D. (2005). Steps in theory of mind development for children with deafness or autism. Child Development, 76, 502–517.
Premack, D., & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1(4), 515-526.
Rosello, B., Berenguer, C., Baixauli, I., García, R., & Miranda, A. (2020). Theory of Mind Profiles in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Adaptive/Social Skills and Pragmatic Competence. Front. Psychol., 11, 567401.
Rutter, M., Bailey, A., Bolton, P., & Le Couteur, A. (1994). Autism and known medical conditions: myth and substance. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 35(2), 311-322.
Saeedi, S., Bouraghi, H., Seifpanahi, M. S., & Ghazisaeedi, M. (2022). Application of Digital Games for Speech Therapy in Children: A Systematic Review of Features and Challenges. Journal of Healthcare Engineering, 2022, 4814945.
Scher, L. J. & Shyman, E. (2019). Challenging Weak Central Coherence: A Brief Exploration of Neurological Evidence from Visual Processing and Linguistic Studies in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Annals of Behavioral Neuroscience, 2(1), 136-143.
Schlaug, G., Marchina, S., & Norton, A. (2008). From singing to speaking: Why singing may lead to recovery of expressive language function in patients with Broca's aphasia. Music perception, 25(4), 315-323.
Simon, B. C. (2002). The extreme male brain theory of autism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6(6), 248-254.
Tager-Flusberg, H. (2001). A reexamination of the theory of mind hypothesis of autism. In J. A. Burack, T. Charman, N. Yirmiya, & P. R. Zelazo (Eds.), The development of autism: Perspectives from theory and research (pp. 173–193). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
Tassini, S. C. V., Melo, M. C., Bueno, O. F. A., & de Mello, C. B. (2022). Weak central coherence in adults with ASD: Evidence from eye-tracking and thematic content analysis of social scenes. Applied Neuropsychology: Adult, 1-12.
Vingerhoeds, S. (2017). Central Coherence and Theory of Mind in children and adolescents.
Wairungu, G. M. (2020). Applied Behavior Analysis as an Intervention Strategy in Learners with Autism Spectrum Disorder. International Journal of Research and Scientific Innovation, 7(6), 87-92.
How to Cite
Olumula, C. I., & Wairungu, G. M. (2024). Cognitive Theories in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Why Individuals with Autism Behave the Way They Do. European Journal of Science, Innovation and Technology, 4(1), 422-433. Retrieved from