It is frequently believed that autism is characterized by a lack of social or emotional reciprocity. In this lecture, I question that assumption. I begin my reminding all of us that reciprocity is “a relation of mutual dependence or action or influence,” “a mode of exchange in which transactions take place between individuals who are symmetrically placed.” However, sometimes, as clinicians, researchers, and parents, we forget that reciprocity needs to be mutual and symmetrical – that reciprocity is a two-way street. Research is reviewed that illustrates when professionals, peers, and parents are taught to act reciprocally, autistic children become more responsive. In one randomized clinical trial of “reciprocity training” to parents, their autistic children’s language developed rapidly and their social engagement increased markedly. Other demonstrations of how parents and professionals can increase their behavior of reciprocity are provided.
According to some laypersons, the nation is experiencing an autism epidemic — a rapid escalation in the prevalence of autism for unknown reasons. However, no sound scientific evidence indicates that the increasing number of diagnosed cases of autism arises from anything beyond purposely broader diagnostic criteria, coupled with deliberately greater public awareness and intentionally improved case finding. Why is the public perception so disconnected from the scientific evidence? This lecture reviews three primary sources of misunderstanding: lack of awareness about the changing diagnostic criteria; uncritical acceptance of a conclusion illogically drawn in a California-based study; and inattention to a crucial feature of the “child count” data reported annually by the U.S. Department of Education.
Mirror neurons were so named after Rizzolatti and colleagues’ serendipitous discovery during single-cell recording in macaques: A set of neurons in ventrolateral premotor cortex was reported to discharge both when the monkey spontaneously executed an action, such as reaching for a pellet, and when the monkey spontaneously observed a conspecific executing the same action. It is widely believed that mirror neurons have been documented in humans and that human mirror neurons underlie a wide array of phenomena, from speech perception to mind reading. However, the human neuroimaging studies most frequently cited as evidence for mirror neurons in humans have failed to provide that evidence, leading Rizzolatti and his colleagues to caution that “brain imaging experiments carried out in humans have failed up to now to convincingly demonstrate the existence of a cortical circuit similar to that described in the monkey.” Other studies purporting to provide evidence for the existence of mirror neurons in humans have introduced a tautology into their definition of mirror neurons, and several studies were critically confounded.