Unraveling the paradox of the autistic self.


Paradoxically, individuals with autism spectrum conditions have been character- ized as both impaired in self-referential cognitive processing, yet also egocentric. How can the self in autism be both ‘absent’ (i.e., impaired self-referential cogni- tion), yet ‘all too present’ (i.e., egocentric)? In this paper, we first review evidence in support of both claims. Second, we highlight new evidence illustrating atyp- ical function of neural systems underlying self-representation in autism. We suggest that egocentrism and impaired self-referential cognition are not inde- pendent phenomena. Instead, both egocentrism and impaired self-referential cognition in autism can be resolved as expressions of one common mecha- nism linked to the atypical function of neural circuitry coding for self-relevant information. We discuss how autism provides a unique window into the neu- rodevelopmental mechanisms enabling a critical developmental transition in self-awareness. This transition involves a dual understanding that one is similar to, yet distinct from others. The neural and cognitive basis of this developmen- tal transition is central to understanding the development of social cognition as well as the paradox of the autistic self and its relation to social impairment in autism.