Scientific research on neuro-cognitive mechanisms of autism often focuses on circuits that support social functioning. However, autism is a heterogeneous developmental variation in multiple domains, including social communication, but also language, cognition, and sensory-motor control. This suggests that the underlying mechanisms of autism share a domain-general foundation that impacts all of these processes. In this Perspective Review, we propose that autism is not a social deficit that results from an atypical “social brain”. Instead, typical social development relies on learning. In social animals, infants depend on their caregivers for survival, which makes social information vitally salient. The infant must learn to socially interact in order to survive and develop, and the most prominent learning in early life is crafted by social interactions. Therefore, the most prominent outcome of a learning variation is atypical social development. To support the hypothesis that autism results from a variation in learning, we first review evidence from neuroscience and developmental science, demonstrating that typical social development depends on two domain-general processes that determine learning: (a) motivation, guided by allostatic regulation of the internal milieu; and (b) multi-modal associations, determined by the statistical regularities of the external milieu. These two processes are basic ingredients of typical development because they determine allostasis-driven learning of the social environment. We then review evidence showing that allostasis and learning are affected among individuals with autism, both neurally and behaviorally. We conclude by proposing a novel domain-general framework that emphasizes allostasis-driven learning as a key process underlying autism. Guided by allostasis, humans learn to become social, therefore, the atypical social profile seen in autism can reflect a domain-general variation in allosta-sis-driven learning. This domain-general view raises novel research questions in both basic and clinical research and points to targets for clinical intervention that can lower the age of diagnosis and improve the well-being of individuals with autism.
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- Domain-general neural circuits
- Multi-modal integration
- Parent-infant synchrony
- Social development