Exploring the cognitive features in children with autism spectrum disorder, their co-twins, and typically developing children within a population-based sample

J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2015 Aug;56(8):893-902. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12362. Epub 2014 Nov 24.


Background: The behavioural symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are thought to reflect underlying cognitive deficits/differences. The findings in the literature are somewhat mixed regarding the cognitive features of ASD. This study attempted to address this issue by investigating a range of cognitive deficits and the prevalence of multiple cognitive atypicalities in a large population-based sample comprising children with ASD, their unaffected co-twins, and typically developing comparison children.

Methods: Participants included families from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) where one or both children met diagnostic criteria for ASD. Overall, 181 adolescents with a diagnosis of ASD and 73 unaffected co-twins were included, plus an additional 160 comparison control participants. An extensive cognitive battery was administered to measure IQ, central coherence, executive function, and theory of mind ability.

Results: Differences between groups (ASD, co-twin, control) are reported on tasks assessing theory of mind, executive function, and central coherence. The ASD group performed atypically in significantly more cognitive tasks than the unaffected co-twin and control groups. Nearly a third of the ASD group presented with multiple cognitive atypicalities.

Conclusions: Multiple cognitive atypicalities appear to be a characteristic, but not universal feature, of ASD. Further work is needed to investigate whether specific cognitive atypicalities, either alone or together, are related to specific behaviours characteristic of ASD.

Keywords: Autism spectrum disorder; cognition; executive function; theory of mind; weak central coherence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Twin Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / complications*
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / psychology
  • Child
  • Child Development / physiology
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Cognition Disorders / complications*
  • Cognition Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Cognition Disorders / psychology
  • Executive Function / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Theory of Mind / physiology
  • Twins / psychology
  • United Kingdom