A key development in autism research in the last twenty-odd years has been the use of less rigid methods such as interviews, fieldwork, and surveys, instead of those based on standardised measurements or other “laboratory-based” tasks. These looser approaches, in tandem with the increasing popularity of autobiographical writing by autistic people, have served to complement more traditional research by adding nuance and detail to understandings of the condition.
Now, a team from Australia led by Rozanna Lilley has used such an approach with a population underrepresented in autism research, namely late-diagnosed adults. The authors conducted oral history interviews with 26 autistic adults born before 1975 — thus growing up before the condition was widely known — and diagnosed when over the age of 35. Lilley and colleagues were interested in how participants’ sense of their own identity has changed over time, and how receiving a diagnosis may have impacted this.
Research into emotion processing in autistic people has mainly focused on how they understand others’ emotions. A more limited body of work into how autistic people process their own emotions has, however, suggested difficulties identifying and describing emotional experiences, and distinguishing between emotional states. The latter is potentially important, as it is associated with negative outcomes such as anxiety, depression, and self-injurious behavior, all of which have been suggested to occur more frequently in autism than in the general population.
So far, studies of emotion differentiation in autism have tended to use language-based tasks. But now, a team led by Eleanor Palser from the University of California San Francisco has reported the first study looking at how autistic children map out where they feel emotions in their body. The team finds that compared to non-autistic children, the bodily emotion maps of autistic children are more similar across different emotions, suggesting less variability in the way they physically experience different emotional states. The research, published in the journal Autism, was partly based on a 2016 report from the charity Autistica, in which members of the autistic community identified sensory processing and affective difficulties as key research goals.
A key feature of interviews is open-ended questioning inviting the recall of past experiences and memories — what psychologists call “autobiographical” memory. Having to provide this information accurately and coherently, combined with the stress of the situation, can often make being interviewed a demanding and uncomfortable experience.
That is especially true of autistic people, who may have difficulties with both autobiographical memory and open-ended questioning. Many autistic people report job interviews as a major barrier to employment, and it’s possible that interview difficulties may also be compounding, or partially causing, problems in legal and healthcare contexts where open-ended interviews requiring autobiographical recall are a common feature. Autistic people are more likely to be involved in criminal investigations, for instance, and to experience physical and mental health difficulties.
One of the most well-known psychological biases is the Dunning-Kruger effect: the tendency for individuals less skilled or knowledgeable in a particular area to overestimate their own performance. Now, a team of researchers from Miami University, Ohio, have offered the most robust evidence yet that this may apply to knowledge about autism — that what people think they know about the condition may not be that closely related to what they actually know. Continue reading “What People Think They Know About Autism Bears Little Relation To Their Actual Knowledge”→
We make all kinds of snap decisions about a person based on their facial appearance. How trustworthy we think they are is one of the most important, as it can have many social and financial consequences, from influencing our decisions about whether to lend someone money to which Airbnb property to book.
However, as the authors of a new study, published in the British Journal of Psychology, note, “Although facial impressions of trustworthiness are formed automatically, they are not especially accurate predictors of trustworthy behaviour.” People who are less susceptible to forming these impressions could, then, be at an advantage. And, as Jasmine Hooper at the University of Western of Australia and colleagues now report, men with high levels of autistic traits fall into this category.
A process involved in neurodevelopmental disorders that we are only just beginning to understand is “compensation” – the way that a deficit can be partially or wholly masked by automatic mental processes and/or deliberate behavioural strategies. For instance, a person with dyslexia may achieve typical levels of reading ability after an earlier diagnosis, not because the disorder has gone away (subtle tests might show continuing problems in phonological processing, for example) but through the use of behavioural strategies, such as reverse-engineering a tricky word from the meaning of words around it. In a new review in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews Lucy Anne Livingston and Francesca Happé, at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, take us through what compensation might mean for autism.
A related observation is that exposure to high concentrations of prenatal testosterone leads to the development of “hyper masculine” facial features. It follows that if the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism is accurate, then autistic people will have hypermasculine faces.
A new study in Scientific Reports put this logic to the test, and consistent with the Extreme Male Brain theory, found that autistic girls and boys had more masculine faces as compared with neurotypical control children.
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.
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.
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.