Autism as emergent and transactional

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The current epistemology of autism as a phenotype derives from the consistency of historical accounts and decades of work within the tradition of descriptive epidemiology, culminating in current categorical descriptions within DSM and ICD nosologies and the concept of “prototypical autism.” The demonstrated high heritability of this phenotype has led to an essentialist theory of autism as a biological entity and the concerted search within the developmental brain and genetic science for discrete biological markers. This search has not revealed simple markers explaining autistic outcomes and has led to moves towards a more dimensional account. This article proposes an alternative transactional approach. It proposes to understand autistic states as an emergent property within a complex developmental system; as the neurodivergent brain, and mind and body, encounter their social and physical environment within early development. Key evidence in support of this approach comes from random allocation intervention trials based on such transactional development theory, both in the infancy pre-diagnostic prodrome and the early post-diagnostic period. In replicated evidence, these intervention trials show that a targeted alteration in the quality of social transactional environment available for the child leads to significant, predictable, and sustained alterations in the outcome dimensional autistic phenotype over time; and further, in one prodromal trial, to a significant reduction in later categorical classification status. The inference from this evidence is that the prototypical autistic phenotype is to a degree malleable with a changed experienced social environment and that it is emergent from its constituent traits. Such a transactional approach enlarges our notion of the phenotype and brings the study of autism within mainstream individual difference developmental science. It challenges essentialist views, for instance as to intrinsic autistic “social avoidance” or theory of mind empathy deficits, integrates dimensional and categorical perspectives, and is consistent with the lived experience of autistic people and their advocacy for improved understanding within a social model.
Original languageEnglish
Article number988755
JournalFrontiers in Psychiatry
Publication statusPublished - 7 Oct 2022


  • autism
  • transaction
  • emergence
  • neurodiversity
  • intervention
  • autism spectrum conditions
  • clinical trials
  • neurodivergence


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