A hallmark feature of autism is difficulty understanding the thoughts and intentions of others. What is behind that?
In simple language
In simple language, neurotypicals have a crystal ball that makes awesomely accurate predictions of what other people are thinking and how they will behave. When the crystal ball does make an error, it automatically upgrades itself, to an even more accurate crystal ball. This is why it looks as if neurotypicals have an innate knowledge of social interactions.
Autistic people, however, have a crystal ball that looks at the world and makes very bad predictions, and has no self-correcting mechanism. The worse our crystal ball works, the worse our social challenges.
It is why so many of us get taken advantage of and abused. Think of it like this—when I was a kid I had a can that stated ‘Peanut Butter Brittle’ on it, and when you opened it, out sprang two long spring worms that surprised whoever opened it expecting Peanut Butter Brittle.
So a neurotypical gets surprised the first time, and then after that never again. A person with autism can fall for the same joke over and over. The worse your crystal ball is, the more likely and more frequently you will fall for the same joke.
In my own life, this has proven to be problematic, and I often get really mad at myself. When someone is hurtful I think I will not trust them again…but they are nice and it happens again, and again, and again.
In scientific language
In more scientific language, a hallmark feature of autism is difficulty understanding the thoughts and intentions of others (also known as a low theory of mind), which causes social problems.
One theory on the social deficits in autism is a coding discrepancy between what the expected and actual outcome of another’s behaviour is, resulting in a difference in processing social information. The brain (specifically the gyral surface of the anterior cingulate cortex) signals social prediction errors to neurotypicals, which is altered in autistic people. The degree to which the social signaling error was altered correlated with the extent of social challenges.
In addition, in neurotypicals—but not autistics—the degree of the social prediction error is due to the information from the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.Disrupted prediction errors index social deficits in autism spectrum disorder (Balsters et al., 2016)