Social Cognition: What Is It and What Does It Tell Us About How to Teach? (page 3)

By — Autism Society
Updated on Apr 3, 2009

Central Coherence

Another learning theory, Central Coherence Theory of Autism (Frith, 1989), refers to the ability to understand the gist or general idea of a situation quickly. In highly social environments, it is important to be able to enter a situation and quickly determine what is going on—whether we should be there at all and if people are friendly or dangerous. According to the Central Coherence Theory, a person with ASD tends to focus on details (and often irrelevant details), rather than interpreting the whole. This learning style would infer that instruction be direct and obvious so that the person with ASD attends to important ideas. Comfortably and competently entering a social setting requires good central coherence, especially when the school environment includes varied and numerous social settings. For example, when a student enters the cafeteria, he quickly scans the environment to determine which line to go through, which table has room and with which students to sit. If a student with ASD has difficulty with this cognitive skill, entering the cafeteria can be a confusing and stressful event. Teaching a student with ASD to negotiate the cafeteria routine by highlighting each of these important steps and offering opportunities for practice could help to support weak central coherence.

The Enactive Mind

Klin et al. (2003) proposed another theory called the Enactive Mind (EM). This theory comes from a neuroscience framework called “embodied cognition” (Varela et al., 1991) and suggests that social learning in children with ASD is derailed early on, as a result of the child’s lack of focused attention to social stimuli. To “enact” means to recreate, thus this theory refers to how a person’s perceptions and experiences are a crucial part of social learning. The process of social learning is embedded in the act of social interaction. Students with ASD often learn social information through traditional teaching or social skills groups, but then seem to be unable to spontaneously use the learned information in real-life social situations. These individuals tend to learn about the world, rather than learn how to function in it. The EM theory has significant implications for how we teach social information to people with ASD. If learning happens through experience, practice and doing, then instruction should reflect this by using modeling, repeated meaningful practice, direct experience opportunities and feedback.

Summary The science of social cognition as it affects students with ASD is still in its infancy. The three theories discussed are only a sample of how neuropsychology can impact education, and the far-reaching implications of this research are yet to be fully understood. However, it is important that educators learn and understand this research because they have an obligation to their students to provide appropriate instruction aligned with needs. The more we learn about the function of the brain, the clearer it becomes that, like reading or math, social thinking and social behavior needs to be taught to students whose brains seem to develop in nontraditional ways.

About the Author

Kari Dunn Buron is the coordinator of the ASD Certificate Program at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn.


Baron-Cohen, S. (2006). Two new theories of autism: Hypersystemising and assortative mating. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 91, 2-5.

Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A.M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a theory of mind? Cognition, 21, 37-46.

Buron, K., & Curtis, M. (2004). The Incredible 5-Point Scale: Assisting students with ASD in understanding social interactions and controlling their emotional responses. Shawnee Mission, Kan.: Autism Asperger Publishing Co.

Frith, U. (1989). Autism: Explaining the enigma. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Klin, A., Jones, W., Schultz, R.T., & Volkmar, F.R. (2003). The enactive mind – from actions to cognition: Lessons from autism. Philosophical Transactions of the Biological Sciences, 358, 345-360.

Varela, F., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (1991). The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

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