The concept of autism has changed across time, from the Bleulerian concept, which defined it as one of several symptoms of dementia praecox, to the present-day concept representing a pervasive development disorder. The present theoretical contribution to this special issue of EJN on autism introduces new theoretical ideas and discusses them in light of selected prior theories, clinical examples, and recent empirical evidence. The overall aim is to identify some present challenges of diagnostic practice and autism research and to suggest new pathways that may help direct future research. Future research must agree on the definitions of core concepts such as autism and psychosis. A possible redefinition of the concept of autism may be a condition in which the rationale of an individual's behaviour differs qualitatively from that of the social environment due to characteristic cognitive impairments affecting reasoning. A broad concept of psychosis could focus on deviances in the experience of reality resulting from impairments of reasoning. In this light and consistent with recent empirical evidence, it may be appropriate to redefine dementia praecox as a developmental disorder of reasoning. A future challenge of autism research may be to develop theoretical models that can account for the impact of complex processes acting at the social level in addition to complex neurobiological and psychological processes. Such models could profit from a distinction among processes related to (i) basic susceptibility, (ii) adaptive processes and (iii) decompensating factors involved in the development of manifest illness.