Academic journal article International Journal of Psychological Studies

Perceptual Control Theory and the Phenomenological Analysis of the Experience of Autism: A Case Study

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychological Studies

Perceptual Control Theory and the Phenomenological Analysis of the Experience of Autism: A Case Study

Article excerpt


Autism is defined as a developmental disorder that is often characterized by deficits in a broad range of social functioning. The present qualitative study attempts to begin to understand the subjective and functional nature of these apparent deficits in one boy diagnosed with autism. Using Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis and the framework of Perceptual Control Theory the child's behaviours were considered to be attempts to control his perceptual experience of his environment. Understanding autistic behaviour in this way might allow for a greater understanding of the capabilities of a child with autism rather than focusing on deficits. Stimulation, certainty, and self-interest were identified as possible perceptual themes controlled by the participant. The implications of these findings are discussed in reference to current literature.

Keywords: autism, behavior, perceptual control theory, control, theory of mind, imitation, emotion, IPA

1. Introduction

Autism is considered to be a profound lifelong disability (Smith & Bryson, 1994). Soucy (1997) defines Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as a severe, lifelong pervasive developmental disorder where individuals have noticeable deficits in imitating others, gesturing, learning through observation, joint attention, symbolic play, and in understanding the expression of emotion. Alongside this, an inability to relate to others is highlighted as a prominent feature of ASD (Mastrangelo, 2009). The inability to relate can be identified through social withdrawal, which typically includes 'minimal eye contact and an active avoidance of social contact' (Schleien, 1990, p. 318).

In research looking at the types of social difficulties that are experienced by people with autism, Frith, Siddons, and Happé (1994) found that the social difficulties were linked to being able to understand that other people's minds contain different information from one's own mind. This is the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and to others, and is known as the Theory of Mind (ToM; Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985). ToM is thought to play a causal role in the development of difficulties in reciprocal social action and communication for ASD (Pellicano, 2007). ToM "provides the ability to predict relationships between external states of affairs and internal states of mind" (Frith, 2003, p. 77).

Interpreting emotional facial expressions is an essential part of social interactions, and is likely to be one of the earliest facilitators of social engagement (Begeer, Rieffe, Terwogt & Stockman, 2006; Bushnell, Sai, & Mullen, 1989). Non-autistic children learn to associate facial expressions with people's inner states. Attendng to these cues could be viewed as progress towards a more developed ToM, or "mind reading" (Baron-Cohen, 1995), and the ability to interpret other people's mental states (Begeer et al.). Children with autism, however, appear to have reduced attention to facial emotional cues. Early research showed that children with autism were more likely to categorise photographs by non-emotional features, for example hats, than by emotional facial expressions (Jennings, 1974). Interestingly, when specifically asked, the low functioning children with autism were able to categorise the photographs based on emotional cues. Begeer and others (2006) suggest that children with autism might naturally ignore facial expressions in others, as they may foresee no direct need to deal with this kind of information.

ToM offers insight into the social aspects of pretend play (Charman & Baron-Cohen, 1997) as well as explaining important imaginative deficits (Steele, Joseph & Tager-Flusberg, 2003) of ASD. The metarepresentational hypothesis of play contends that, along with the inability to infer mental states (ToM), children with an autistic disorder do not detach from the fixed characteristics of a representation (Mastrangelo, 2009). However, the meta-representational hypothesis has been under criticism by research which identifies that under instruction, children with autism can engage in pretend play (Lewis & Boucher, 1995). …

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