James E. Crum, II

The Executive Brain

Autism, Mentalizing, and the Observer Effect

Some Implications for Education

Posted Jan 28, 2018

Public Domain Archives
Source: Public Domain Archives

As many of us might remember, school (K-12) was an intellectually laborious period of our lives; there was a great deal of information that needed to be encoded into our relatively young brains and, importantly, retrieved from memory at the appropriate moments. School was perhaps equally taxing on cognitive operations responsible for processing social information. It is too easy to recall many activities and situations that engendered and constituted social interactions; learning in a social environment was inevitable. So, school was psychologically demanding in many ways, but seldom were these demands placed in the absence of other people. This is particularly the case inside the classroom. Students are seated amongst their peers, collectively learning and, purportedly, striving to become the young minds of tomorrow.

However, there is a student demographic whose classroom and, ultimately, educational experience might have been somewhat alienating: students with neurodevelopmental disorders. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), this category of psychopathology includes intellectual developmental disorder, communication disorders, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), specific learning disorder, and motor disorders (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013, pp. 31–86). The present article will largely focus on ASD. ASD affects about 1% of populations in and out of the U.S in terms of prevalence. Its onset is often discerned between the first and second years of age (12-24 months). The etiology of ASD is largely genetic; it retains a moderate rate of heritability (37%-90%). Its course is chronic and contemporary treatments are by and large behaviorally based; there is currently no panacea, as it were, for treating its core deficits.

Perhaps many of us have observed during our grade school experience neurodevelopmentally atypical students who were sent to other, supervised classrooms to complete assignments, exams, and so forth. The idea behind having these classrooms is to offer a learning environment dedicated to meeting the learning needs of neurodevelopmentally atypical students. For example, there is generally less distracting information that students with ADHD need to inhibit (e.g., other students), making it easier for them to focus on their assignments.

Although students with atypical neurodevelopment might need to spend much of the school day in a classroom designed to meet their learning needs, and although these students are often in the company of others with neurodevelopmental disorders, these students are, nonetheless, physically separated from many of the peers with whom they grew up. Drawing upon first-hand experience as a substitute teacher for this type of classroom and for standard classrooms, some adolescents were periodically sent to other rooms to complete academic tasks, indeed; whereas others spent the majority of the school day in these specialized classrooms—when they were not at lunch or recess. These are situations in which individuals are demarcated and, therefore, potentially alienated, raising the importance of considering the influence of the policies underpinning these situations on the emotional and social well-being of neurodevelopmentally atypical students.

One line of consideration might begin from the fact that there is heterogeneity in atypical neurodevelopment. These disorders affect cognitive, emotional, and social brain processes at different levels of functioning, and differently from individual to individual. For example, although people with ASD have a disorder for which there is now a great deal of cognitive neuroscientific evidence suggesting deficits in the ability to think about the thoughts and feelings of others and of self-generated thoughts (i.e., mentalizing), they tend to complete tasks heterogeneously and, moreover, they can engage in tasks requiring different aspects of memory and attention and perform as well as, and in some cases better than, control groups (e.g., Hill & Bird, 2006; Towgood, Meuwese, Gilbert, Turner, & Burgess, 2009), and are even able to accurately complete simple mentalizing tasks—particularly high-functioning individuals (see Hill, 2004).

From this heterogeneity in functioning between and within neurodevelopmental disorders it becomes probable that many atypical students—albeit to different degrees—spend time thinking about others’ mental states, such as about what others might think of them, and time evaluating the social and emotional significance of these judgments (i.e., appraisal; see Schorr, Scherer, & Johnstone, 2010). One situation that is not difficult to imagine is one in which a student with a neurodevelopmental disorder draws negative inferences about herself and others after being asked to leave her classroom—and perhaps friends—to complete assignments in a different room. Thus, it is not outside the range of possibilities that atypical students sometimes feel ostracized.

Investigating the influence of demarcating an individual from the student population on the prevalence of comorbidity between neurodevelopmental disorders and mood and anxiety disorders might provide information crucial to improving policies that address the learning needs of this type of student. Another potentially fruitful avenue of exploration might involve examining certain aspects of appraisal processing in atypical neurodevelopment with cognitive neuroscientific, as well as phenomenological, methods.

Whether or not the impact of attending specialized classrooms on emotional and social well-being is deleterious, it remains plausible that, whatever the effects, they might be outweighed by the ability of this learning environment to promote academic performance and intellectual development—in a utilitarian sense (see Lazari-Radek & Singer, 2016). If science demonstrates that by and large the costs to emotional and social well-being are minimal and the benefits to learning are marked, then we might, at the normative level, have reason to make no changes to educational policy. However, we might have reason to modify educational policy if the converse is substantiated: if costs to emotional and social well-being are marked and the benefits to learning are minimal.

In fact, some alterations might be warranted if it were demonstrated that the cognitive performance of some types of atypical neurodevelopment is not significantly inhibited in environments involving stimuli common to standard classrooms, such as being in the presence of other conspecifics. Allocating a portion of students to other rooms to complete academic work becomes almost gratuitous if they are able to perform tasks no better in the absence of a room filled with other students, and no worse in a full one. If this is the case for certain forms of atypical neurodevelopment, then educational institutions ought to ensure that these students are provided more opportunities for social and emotional learning.

Interestingly, recent cognitive neuroscientific research has raised the question of whether specialized classrooms promote learning over and above standard ones in atypical neurodevelopment. The laboratory is the best place at which to start examining the potential influence of others on learning and behavior, because a real classroom is not a strictly controlled setting, and it is here that scientists have investigated a phenomenon called the observer effect. The observer effect refers to the influence of the presence or absence of other people on behavior and cognition. This concept can be traced as far back as Plato’s ‘Ring of Gyges’ story in the Republic (Cohen, Curd, & Reeve, 2016), in which people were predicted to act less ethically if they could not be seen by others—if they possessed a ring of invisibility. The observer effect has been subject to empirical testing across a wide range of situations in typical neurodevelopment: for example, in sports psychology (e.g., how the accuracy of free-throw shots in basketball changes when there is an audience versus no audience). The general finding across studies of the observer effect has been that behavior changes when we are observed by other people and, depending on a number of other factors, these changes facilitate or inhibit task performance (see Zajonc, 1965).

The observer effect has been investigated in atypical neurodevelopment, too, albeit this domain of research is relatively smaller. Studies investigating whether the observer effect can be found in ASD have suggested that, in short, it cannot (e.g., Chevallier, Parish-Morris, Tonge, Millern, & Schultz, 2014; Scheeren, Beeger, Banerjee, Meerum Terwogt, & Koot, 2010). People with ASD tend to perform no worse or better when other people are absent or present, respectively and conversely. One explanation for these findings is that mentalizing underpins the observer effect (Hamilton & Lind, 2016). That is, observers are unlikely to affect one’s behavior in so far as one is unable to properly discern or attribute the mental states of others. There is dysfunction in the facility of people with ASD to represent in their brains the propositional attitudes of others, and this type of cortical dysfunction might explain why their performance on tasks seldom suffers or benefits from having others around them.

The implications of these findings are complex. It would be premature to conclude from them that students with ASD should not be separated from their peers to do academic work, and it would certainly be erroneous to think that this should be done for all students with neurodevelopmental disorders. These findings might not hold for other forms of atypical neurodevelopment; for instance, ASD could potentially be the only type of neurodevelopmental disorder that does not require a specialized classroom in which to learn. The heterogeneity that is characteristic of ASD should be considered also. It might turn out that learning is not optimal for some students with ASD in standard classrooms compared to specialized ones; whereas it not hindering for other ASD students. So, the decision of whether or not to separate a student with ASD from her peers to better focus on academic tasks might depend on where she is on the spectrum of brain functioning.

However, none of the above can be determined, including the effects of alienation on emotional and social well-being, without future research. Although some studies have begun to shed light on the issue of demarcating certain student demographics, additional studies are necessary before changes to educational policy are warranted. An interesting and perhaps necessary step forward might be to bring educational systems closer to empirical tests of the observer effect. There are a number of experimental paradigms that could feasibly be developed. Researchers could examine, for example, the task performance of students across different neurodevelopmental disorders, cognitive tasks, grade levels, and educational institutions, and compare the performance of students who remain amongst their peers with those who completed the tasks in specialized classrooms—whilst using a number of controlling variables (e.g., students’ relative level of functioning).

In sum, people with neurodevelopmental disorders such as ASD perform tasks differently than neurotypicals and might require additional resources to facilitate learning: environments in which potential distractions are minimized and there is little attentional interference. But an unfortunate aspect to providing these opportunities to learn is that students are sent from their classrooms to work in such environments. The present article discussed the potential susceptibility of students with neurodevelopmental disorders to experience changes in emotional and social functioning as a result of being demarcated in this way, and it raised the question of whether learning in a standard classroom is sufficient for certain atypical students. Future research will improve our understanding of these problems and help guide educational policies that promote solidarity and encourage social and emotional learning.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Chevallier, C., Parish-Morris, J., Tonge, N., Le, L., Miller, J., & Schultz, R. T. (2014). Susceptibility to the audience effect explains performance gap between children with and without autism in a theory of mind task. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(3), 972–979. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035483

Cohen, S. M., Curd, P., & Reeve, C. D. C. (2016). Readings in ancient Greek philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle.

Hamilton, A. F. de C., & Lind, F. (2016). Audience effects: what can they tell us about social neuroscience, theory of mind and autism? Culture and Brain, 4(2), 159–177. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40167-016-0044-5

Hill, E. L. (2004). Evaluating the theory of executive dysfunction in autism. Developmental Review. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2004.01.001

Hill, E. L., & Bird, C. M. (2006). Executive processes in Asperger syndrome: Patterns of performance in a multiple case series. Neuropsychologia, 44, 2822–2835

Lazari-Radek, K., & Singer, P. (2016). The point of view of the universe: Sidgwick and contemporary ethics. Oxford University Press.

Scheeren, A. M., Begeer, S., Banerjee, R., Meerum Terwogt, M., & Koot, H. M. (2010). Can you tell me something about yourself? Autism, 14(5), 457–473. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361310366568

Scherer, K. R., Schorr, A., & Johnstone, T. (2001). Appraisal processes in emotion: Theory, methods, research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Towgood, K. J., Meuwese, J. D., Gilbert, S. J., Turner, M. S., & Burgess, P. W. (2009). Advantages of the multiple case series approach to the study of cognitive deficits in autism spectrum disorder. Neuropsychologia, 47(13), 2981–2988. https://doi.org/S0028-3932(09)00291-7 [pii]\r10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2009.06.028

Zajonc, R. B. (1965). Social Facilitation. Science, 149(3681), 269–274. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.149.3681.269