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Experts question prevalent stereotypes about autism

As theories about autism spread like wildfire in the media and the general public, a panel of autism experts will reflect on the validity of four widely held - and potentially inaccurate - assumptions about the developmental disability.

Drawing on the latest in autism research, a psychologist, an epidemiologist, a psychiatrist and a physician will critically assess widespread stereotypes about autism during a symposium entitled "Science of Autism," at the 2006 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

"With the surge in both scientists and society turning their attention toward autism, there comes responsibility," says Morton Gernsbacher, a Vilas Research Professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the symposium's chair and organizer.

"It behooves us as scientists to distinguish uninformed stereotypes from scientific reality and to move beyond myths and misconceptions."

During her talk, Gernsbacher will cast doubt on the prevalent notion among autism researchers that autistic individuals lack a "theory of mind." The belief that autistic children lack a sense of both their own minds and those of others emerged about 20 years ago, becoming a seemingly undisputed tenet in the literature since then, says Gernsbacher.

When the psychologist began delving into the question, however, she found that scientists usually ascertain how well individuals perceive the mind with tasks that require a relatively sophisticated level of linguistic ability. Since a common diagnostic criteria for autism is the impairment of communication skills, Gernsbacher says it's not surprising that most autistic children don't fare well on such theory-of-mind tests.

"I think we as a society fall prey to a slippery slope when we begin talking about members of our society as not appreciating that they or others have a mind," says Gernsbacher. "An uncritical acceptance of the hypothesis that a
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Contact: Morton Gernsbacher
magernsb@wisc.edu
608-262-6989
University of Wisconsin-Madison
19-Feb-2006


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