An Investigation of Non-Social Cognition across the Autism Spectrum

  • Clarence Singleton

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a pervasive developmental disorder characterized by two distinct features; the social, including impairments in communication and social functioning (empathizing), and the non-social, including preoccupation with restricted interests and repetitive behaviours (systemizing). This thesis investigated non-social cognition in the autism spectrum by undertaking six studies, three with neurotypical participants from the general population and three with an ASD group and matched neurotypical controls. These studies measured autonomic arousal to social and non-social stimuli and stimuli associated with the participant’s own special interest or hobby, and change blindness tasks that utilized both social and non-social changes, along with measures of attention to detail and anxiety in an attempt to understand some of the cognitive and affective mechanisms that underlie non-social cognition in ASD and in the wider autism spectrum. A further study assessed ‘drive to systemize’ along with an objective behavioural assessment of logical thinking ability and a measure of preference for deliberative or intuitive thinking style, to try to further elucidate connections between drive to systemize and ability to systemize, and the modes of cognition that relate to systemizing.Findings included the relationship between autistic traits and stronger physiological responses to non-social stimuli in the neurotypical sample, and a significantly stronger response in the ASD group to non-social stimuli related to personal special interest than in controls. Participants with a larger number of autistic traits showed enhanced change blindness when changes were social in nature. Self-reported high systemizers report that they prefer slow, deliberative styles of thinking and provide more accurate responses to questions that should involve logical thinking—yet they are less able to provide sound logical reasoning for their correct answers than those who are low systemizers. Together, the results suggest that non-social cognition, or systemizing, in autism is motivated by bottom up perceptual and affective processes that share features with conventional social and emotional cognition, or empathizing.
Date of Award1 Nov 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorMark Brosnan (Supervisor) & Chris Ashwin (Supervisor)


  • autism spectrum
  • Non-social psychophysiology
  • Cognition

Cite this