Background: The fundamental social disturbance of autism is characterized, in part, by problems in the acquisition of joint attention skills in the first years of life, followed by impairments in the development of social cognition, as assessed on theory of mind (ToM) measures. Recently, studies have indicated that a system involving the dorsal medial-frontal cortex (DMFC), and the anterior cingulate (AC), may contribute to the development of the tendency to initiate joint attention in infancy. Similarly, research has implicated the DMFC/AC system in ToM performance in typical and atypical individuals. These data suggest it may be useful to consider the functions associated with this system in the developmental psychopathology of autism.
Method: A review of the studies of the connections between the DMFC/AC system, joint attention and ToM task performance.
Results and conclusions: This review raises the hypothesis that the DMFC/AC may be involved in the basic disturbance in social orienting in autism. The DMFAC/AC may also play a role in the capacity to monitor proprioceptive information concerning self-action and integrate this self-related information with exteroceptive perceptual information about the behavior of other people. A disturbance in these functions of the DMFC/AC may contribute to the atypical development of intersubjectivity, joint attention and social cognition that may impair the lives of people with autism. Thus, impairment in the development of this system may constitute a neural substrate for socio-cognitive deficits in autism.