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Understanding the social brain in autism


  • This paper was originally presented at the scientific symposium held in honor of William T. Greenough at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, June 5, 2009. The author acknowledges the contributions of his many colleagues including Ami Klin, Rhea Paul, Kasia Chawarska, James McPartland, Warren Jones, Robert Schultz, and Kevin Pelphrey.


Autism is an early onset neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by disruption of early social interaction. Although the social disability of autism remains the central defining feature of the condition, mechanisms that might account for this disability remain poorly understood. This paper briefly reviews some aspects of the social deficit in autism focusing on new approaches to characterizing social information processing problems, potential brain mechanisms, and theoretical models of the disorder. It will touch on aspects of specific social processes that appear to develop in unusual ways in autism including facial perception, joint attention, and social information processing. The importance of adopting more ecologically valid methods and for integrating the various approaches in deriving new models for social deficits in autism will be highlighted. Future research should build on the emerging synergy of different aspects of social neuroscience. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Dev Psychobiol 53:428–434, 2011.