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Keywords:

  • Social cognition;
  • autism spectrum disorders;
  • theory of mind;
  • empathy;
  • brain development

Abstract

As a starting point for our review we use a developmental timeline, starting from birth and divided into major developmental epochs defined by key milestones of social cognition in typical development. For each epoch, we highlight those developmental disorders that diverge from the normal developmental pattern, what is known about these key milestones in the major disorders affecting social cognition, and any available research on the neural basis of these differences. We relate behavioural observations to four major networks of the social brain, that is, Amygdala, Mentalizing, Emotion and Mirror networks. We focus on those developmental disorders that are characterized primarily by social atypicality, such as autism spectrum disorder, social anxiety and a variety of genetically defined syndromes. The processes and aspects of social cognition we highlight are sketched in a putative network diagram, and include: agent identification, emotion processing and empathy, mental state attribution, self-processing and social hierarchy mapping involving social ‘policing’ and in-group/out-group categorization. Developmental disorders reveal some dissociable deficits in different components of this map of social cognition. This broad review across disorders, ages and aspects of social cognition leads us to some key questions: How can we best distinguish primary from secondary social disorders? Is social cognition especially vulnerable to developmental disorder, or surprisingly robust? Are cascading notions of social development, in which early functions are essential stepping stones or building bricks for later abilities, necessarily correct?