Category: Autism

Why autistic people may be less susceptible to marketing tricks

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By Emma Young

We know from past research that autistic people process the world differently at a perceptual level, including showing reduced sensitivity to context. One consequence is that they’re better than average at finding figures in complex shapes. But does this way of looking at the world also influence their higher-level decision-making? According to a new study in Psychological Science, it does: William Skylark and his University of Cambridge colleagues George Farmer and Simon Baron-Cohen found that people with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) – as well as people in the general population with relatively high levels of autistic traits – make more “conventionally rational” decisions, which could influence everything from how they vote to what products they choose to buy.

Continue reading “Why autistic people may be less susceptible to marketing tricks”

Researchers are figuring out how sense of self develops differently in autistic teens

Teenage woman looking at herself in a mirrorBy guest blogger Dan Carney

Our autobiographical memory is fundamental to the development of our sense of self. However, according to past research, it may be compromised in autism, together with other skills that are also vital for self understanding, such as introspection and the ability to attribute mental states to others (known as mentalising).

For example, experiments involving autistic children have highlighted retrieval difficulties, “impoverished narratives”, and a greater need for prompting, while also suggesting that semantic recall (facts from the past) may be impaired in younger individuals.

Now a UK research team, led by Sally Robinson from London’s St. Thomas’ Hospital, has published the first attempt to assess the nature of – and relationships between – autobiographical memory, mentalising and introspection in autism. Reporting their findings in Autism journal, the group hope their results will shed more light on the way that autistic children and teens develop a sense of self.

Continue reading “Researchers are figuring out how sense of self develops differently in autistic teens”

There’s such a thing as “autism camouflaging” and it might explain why some people are diagnosed so late

By guest blogger Helge Hasselmann

While autism is usually diagnosed in childhood, some people remain “off the radar” for a long time and only receive a diagnosis much later. One possible reason is that they have learned socially appropriate behaviours, effectively camouflaging their social difficulties, including maintaining eye contact during conversations, memorising jokes or imitating facial expressions.

This pattern of behaviour could have serious consequences for the lives of some people with autism. It is easy to imagine that camouflaging demands significant cognitive effort, leading to mental exhaustion over time, and in extreme cases perhaps also contributing to anxiety and depression.

If there are gender differences in camouflaging, this could also help explain the well-known male preponderance in autism spectrum disorders. At least part of the gender imbalance may, in fact, stem from an under-diagnosis of autism in girls because they are better at “masking” symptoms.

Before now, autism camouflaging has not been studied in a systematic and standardised manner: a recent open-access study in the journal Autism, by Meng-Chuan Lai and his colleagues, is the first to offer an operationalisation of camouflaging, which they define as the discrepancy between internal and external states in social-interpersonal contexts. For instance, if an autistic person maintains eye contact during a conversation because they have learnt that this is socially appropriate, even though this clashes with how they really want to behave, this would be an example of camouflaging.

Continue reading “There’s such a thing as “autism camouflaging” and it might explain why some people are diagnosed so late”

Autistic people’s social difficulties linked to unusual processing of touch

Man hand pushing a digital screen on office backgroundBy guest blogger Helge Hasselmann

Besides problems with social interactions, it has been known for a while that many people with autism experience sensory difficulties, such as hypersensitivity to sounds, light or touch. With sensory impairment now officially included in diagnostic manuals, researchers have been trying to see if there’s a link between the sensory and social symptoms. Such a link would make intuitive sense: For instance, it is easy to imagine that if someone experienced sensory stimuli more strongly, they would shun social interaction due to their complexity. More specifically, you would expect them to struggle with filtering out and making sense of social cues against the backdrop of sensory overload.

Past research has suggested that tactile hyper-responsiveness in particular may be relevant. The correct processing of tactile information plays an important role in differentiating yourself from others (so-called “self-other discrimination”), a crucial requirement for social cognition. In fact, touch may be unique among the senses because there is a clear difference in the tactile feedback received when you touch something compared to when you see someone else touch something. Now a study in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience has used recordings of participants’ brain waves to provide more evidence that tactile sensations are processed differently in people with autism and that this may contribute to their social difficulties.

Continue reading “Autistic people’s social difficulties linked to unusual processing of touch”

Staged bike crash tests whether empathic people are more altruistic

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Figure from Bethlehem et al showing the staged crash & observers located at positions A & C.

By Christian Jarrett

You’re walking to work and spot a cyclist on the ground, next to his upturned bike, wincing in pain. Do you go and help? Of the many factors influencing your decision, psychological theory suggests that among the most important is your levels of empathy. If you feel the cyclist’s pain and misfortune, you’re more likely to be motivated to help. This might sound obvious, but there has been surprisingly little research to test whether measuring someone’s empathy levels in a questionnaire actually predicts the likelihood that they will show real-life altruism. That’s what Richard Bethlehem and his colleagues have done for a new open access study in Social Neuroscience, in which they staged a bicycle accident along a university footpath. The results provide some of the first evidence that empathy is correlated with altruism “in the wild”.  Continue reading “Staged bike crash tests whether empathic people are more altruistic”

Photos taken by autistic people and neurotypicals differ in intriguing ways

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Image via Wang et al, 2016.

By Christian Jarrett

People with autism have social difficulties and this manifests in simple psychological tests – for example, if you ask them to look at photographs of faces, they will typically spend less time looking at the eye region. But what about if we turned things around and asked autistic people to take photographs of other people – what might this reveal?

That’s exactly what a team of US researchers has done for a small study in Current Biology, and they found autistic people chose to take “strikingly different” kinds of photograph from neurotypical controls – for example, they took fewer photographs of people posing, facing the camera, and more repetitive photographs of objects. Tellingly, people with autism actually took more photographs of other people than did the controls, challenging the mistaken notion that all autistic people are unsociable and uninterested in others.  Continue reading “Photos taken by autistic people and neurotypicals differ in intriguing ways”

No, autistic people do not have a "broken" mirror neuron system – new evidence

By guest blogger Helge Hasselmann

Scientists are still struggling to understand the causes of autism. A difficulty bonding with others represents one of the core symptoms and has been the focus of several theories that try and explain exactly why these deficits come about.

One of the more prominent examples, the “broken mirror hypothesis”, suggests that an impaired development of the mirror neuron system (MNS) is to blame. First observed in monkeys, mirror neurons are more active when you perform a certain action and when you see someone else engage in the same behavior – for example, when you smile or when you see someone else smile.

This “mirroring” has been hypothesised to help us understand what others are feeling by sharing their emotional states, although this is disputed. Another behaviour that is thought to depend on an intact mirror neuron system is facial mimicry – the way that people spontaneously and unconsciously mimic the emotional facial expressions of others.

Interestingly, studies have shown that people with autism do not spontaneously mimic others’ facial expressions, which could explain why they often struggle to “read” people’s emotions or have trouble interacting socially. Some experts have claimed these findings lend support to “broken” mirroring in autism, but this has remained controversial. Now a study in Autism Research has used a new way to measure facial mimicry and the results cast fresh doubt on the idea that autism is somehow caused by a broken mirror neuron system. Continue reading “No, autistic people do not have a "broken" mirror neuron system – new evidence”

What’s it like to be an autistic person at work?

Better detection rates for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) mean the chances of having a colleague with the diagnosis, or being diagnosed yourself, have never been so high. But what’s it like to be “working while ASD”? A new paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests the age when a person is diagnosed is key. Those diagnosed later in life are less likely to fully identify with the label of autism and with the ASD community more broadly, shaping their attitudes and feelings about how they are treated in the workplace.

Tiffany Johnson and Aparna Joshi of Pennsylvania State University interviewed 30 adults diagnosed with ASD about their experiences at work, and then they surveyed a much larger group of people with ASD about the issues that came up. The survey canvassed 210 working people on the spectrum, mostly in their twenties and thirties and two thirds men, contacted through an autism network – they worked in a variety of industries including education, service and finance. Controlling for the influence of other factors such as current age, gender and severity of diagnosis, the data repeatedly showed that age at diagnosis mattered.

Take social interaction – the survey data showed that participants working jobs with higher social demands varied in how they felt about this: later-diagnosed people felt less discriminated against and more capable in these jobs than their early diagnosed counterparts. This late-diagnosed group were more content in roles that resembled what neurotypical peers or role models would take on – the population they worked around and may have considered themselves a group member of for at least some of their working careers. This didn’t mean that social interaction was without issues, but this was in the details of the work – one interviewee noted “I mean I want to be social but I don’t want to get overwhelmed with crowds” – rather than whether to consider it at all. In contrast, the earlier a person’s diagnosis, the more likely that they entered the workplace with a firm idea of having ASD, and resembling other people with ASD, including in terms of their suitability for certain activities.

In a similar fashion, the survey showed that early diagnosed participants were more comfortable in jobs with more organisational support for ASD, but those with a late diagnosis actually preferred less support – that kind of attention and differentiation simply wasn’t attractive to them. Age of diagnosis also influenced disclosing experiences. The survey suggested that the early diagnosed tended to feel somewhat more anxious after disclosing their condition to colleagues, but less discriminated against and more self esteem, whereas their late-diagnosed counterparts felt more discriminated against and reported lower self-esteem post disclosure. Again, this is likely to reflect the more superficial identification towards the ASD label held by later-diagnosed individuals: as one interviewee noted as a reason for their non-disclosure, “I’d much rather [have introvert] as sort of a label” than to introduce the notion of a developmental diagnosis.

Research into stigma and identity management at work has given little attention to developmental disabilities, but as this research shows, navigating work with a diagnosis such as ASD is complex, and the considerations for providing a good work environment for these people far from uniform. Bear in mind that participants’ severity of diagnosis was also associated with their sense of discrimination and self-esteem (those with more severe ASD reported a tougher time, as you’d expect), and that there may be other aspects of the work experience, besides those uncovered here, that also vary according to the age that a worker was diagnosed with ASD.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Johnson, T., & Joshi, A. (2015). Dark Clouds or Silver Linings? A Stigma Threat Perspective on the Implications of an Autism Diagnosis for Workplace Well-Being. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/apl0000058

further reading
What is the correct way to talk about autism? There isn’t one
Special issue of The Psychologist on autism.

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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What is the correct way to talk about autism? There isn’t one

Image: National Autistic Society

The language we use reflects our attitudes but perhaps more important, it can shape those attitudes. A new study considers this power in the context of autism. Lorcan Kenny and his colleagues have conducted a UK survey of hundreds of autistic people; parents, relatives and carers of autistic adults and children; and professionals in the field, about their preferences for the language used to discuss autism. The research was conducted online with the help of the National Autistic Society.

The main finding is that there is no consensus about the preferred terms to use when talking about autism and people with the diagnosis. A key disagreement between and within the surveyed groups is whether the language we use should put the “person first”, as in “people with autism”, or put the diagnosis first, as in “autistic person”. Overall, researchers and other professionals expressed a strong preference for the former. One professional said:

I don’t like phrases which describe a person as their condition, so would always go for ‘person’ first, because that’s what we all are regardless of what conditions we have. I would never describe myself as a thyroidy, for example.

In contrast, autistic people showed a clear preference for autism-first terminology. One of the autistic adults in the survey said:

Separating the person from their autism is damaging, as it reinforces opinions about autism being a ‘thing’ that can be removed, something that may be unpleasant and unwanted, and something that is not just another aspect of a whole, complete and perfect individual human being. Describing oneself as autistic is an extremely important and positive assertion about oneself, it means that one feels complete and whole as one is.

Related to this disagreement is the issue of whether autism is viewed as a “disorder” or a “difference”, and whether any disability associated with autism is seen as located purely in the individual or as arising from society’s failure to adapt to the needs of people with autism. Another adult with autism said:

“Autism is just another way of thinking, not some sort of disease that one can catch.”

Yet some parents and carers were wary of downplaying the impact of autism, often because they are the ones championing their children’s needs. One of them said:

“I prefer ‘disorder’ to ‘condition’ because I think it conveys better the seriousness and the need for support and intervention.”

There was also disagreement about the appropriateness and value of the term Asperger’s Syndrome (a diagnosis dropped recently by US psychiatry) or “Aspie”. Some people felt it was an important part of their identity. Yet others believed continued use of the term undermined efforts to build a united autism community.

Another contentious issue is the idea of autism being a spectrum upon which everyone is located to some degree. This terminology was more popular among professionals and family members than among autistic people, some of whom felt that it trivialises the difficulties faced by those who are “truly autistic”.

A notable point of agreement across the different groups who completed the survey was the dislike for the terms “high-functioning autism” (it downplays the everyday difficulties experienced even by autistic people who have good verbal and intellectual skills) and “low-functioning autism” (it undermines people’s potential).

The researchers said the “fundamental finding” of their research was that “there are reasonable and rational disagreements between members of the autism community as to which terms should be used to describe autism.” They said this “plurality” of views was likely to persist and evolve with time and that for anyone involved in autism, choosing the right language will be difficult and require care, reflection and “practical wisdom”. They added: “The overriding principle for those who are unclear about appropriate terminology should therefore be to inquire of the people with whom they are working or describing for clarification.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Kenny, L., Hattersley, C., Molins, B., Buckley, C., Povey, C., & Pellicano, E. (2015). Which terms should be used to describe autism? Perspectives from the UK autism community Autism DOI: 10.1177/1362361315588200

further reading
Advice from the National Autistic Society on how to talk about autism.
Autism journal podcast about the new survey findings.
Watch your language when talking about autism” co-author Liz Pellicano reflects on the new findings at The Conversation.
Autism – Myth and Reality

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Autistic children’s sensory experiences, in their own words

Children diagnosed with autism often have distinctive sensory experiences, such as being ultra sensitive to noise, or finding enjoyment in repeated, unusual sensory stimulation. However, much of what we know about these experiences comes from the testimony of parents, researchers and clinicians. Now Anne Kirby and her colleagues have published the first report of autistic children’s sensory experiences, based on these children’s own accounts. As the authors say, “children’s voices are still rarely heard or taken seriously in the academic arena,” so this is an innovative approach.

Twelve autistic children aged 4 to 13 were interviewed in their homes. The children’s autism varied in severity, but they were all capable of conducting verbal interviews. The researchers used a range of techniques to facilitate the interviews, such as playing family video clips of the children to prompt discussion of specific episodes. Kirby and her team said their first important finding was to demonstrate the feasibility of interviewing young children with autism.

Careful analysis of the transcripts from the interviews revealed three key themes. The first of these – “normalising” – showed how the children considered many of their experiences to be just like other people’s, as if rejecting the notion that there was something distinct or odd about their behaviour, and also showing a certain self-consciousness (contrary to existing research that suggests self-consciousness is impaired in autism).

Interviewer: What about things you don’t like to touch or feel on your skin?
Child: Um, sharp stuff.
I: Sharp stuff? (smiles) Yeah, exactly.
C: Um, like most people do
I: Yeah
C: Um (pause), hot stuff.
I: Yep.
C: Like, burning hot, like pizza that just came out of the oven.
—-
I: Do you have a favourite thing that you like to eat?
C: Uh, pizza.
I: Yeah? When it’s not too hot, right?
C: Right. That’s what most people say.

The children also expressed satisfaction at learning to cope with problematic sensory sensitivity – such as a dislike of brushing hair. “What’s different about having your hair brushed now?” the interviewer asked. “That I look beautiful,” the thirteen-year-old replied. The children appeared motivated to adapt to their sensitivities, so as to participate in normal daily activities. The researchers said this is contrary to past findings that suggest people with autism don’t want to be “neurotypical” (perhaps such feelings can emerge later).

Another theme was the methods the children used to recount their experiences, including using anecdotes, demonstrating (e.g. by imitating the noise of the car engine, or mimicking a disgust reaction), by repeating their own inner speech from particular experiences, and, in the case of two children, by using similes. On that last point, one child likened eating spinach to eating grass, another likened loud voices to a lion’s roar. “The use of simile as a storytelling method seemed to suggest a sort of perspective-taking that is not expected in children with autism” the researchers said.

The final theme concerned the way the children frequently talked about their sensory experiences in terms of their responses to various situations and stimuli. For example, the children spoke of their strategies, such as covering their ears, watching fireworks through a window, and watching sport on TV rather than in the arena. They also told the interviewers about their uncontrollable physical reactions, such as the pain of loud noises or teeth brushing. When he hears loud music, one little boy said: “it feels like my heart is beating, and um, my, uh, my whole body’s shaking. Mmm and uh, and my eyes, uh, they start to blink a lot.” The children’s reactions were often tied to their fear of particular situations or objects, such as inflated balloons.  It feels like “the unknown is gonna come,” said another child.

The study has obvious limitations, such as the small sample and lack of a comparison group, so we can’t know for sure that children without autism wouldn’t come up with similar answers. However, the research provides a rare insight into autistic children’s own perspective on their sensory worlds. “Through exploration of how children share about their experiences, we can come to better understand those experiences,” the researchers said, ultimately helping “how we study, assess, and address sensory features that impact daily functioning among children with autism.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Kirby, A., Dickie, V., & Baranek, G. (2015). Sensory experiences of children with autism spectrum disorder: In their own words Autism, 19 (3), 316-326 DOI: 10.1177/1362361314520756

further reading
Autism – myth and reality (Psychologist magazine feature article)

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest