Category: Autism

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

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

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.


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.”


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.”


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

Students with more autistic traits make fewer altruistic choices

Most people with autism have difficulties socialising and connecting with others. It’s generally agreed that part of this has to do with an impairment in taking other people’s perspective. More specifically, an emerging consensus suggests that autism is associated with having normal feelings for other people, but an impaired understanding of them. Little explored before now is how this affects the behaviour of people with autism towards others who need help.

Leila Jameel and her colleagues surveyed 573 students using the 50-item Autism-Spectrum Quotient, which is a questionnaire designed to tap key traits associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Then they asked 27 of the top 10 per cent of scorers and 24 of the bottom 10 per cent to complete a new test of pro-social behaviour known as the Above and Beyond Task.

The participants read scenarios that conflicted another person’s needs with their own. They first stated how they’d act in this scenario, and then they chose from three fixed alternatives, ranging from selfish, to medium pro-social, to high pro-social (or “above and beyond”). For example, one scenario involved seeing a man fall in the street while the participant was rushing to work for a meeting. After giving their own response as to how they’d react, the three fixed options were: carry on walking; help him up and carry on walking; help him up and offer to take him to sit down on a nearby bench.

High scorers on the Autism-Spectrum Quotient more often chose the selfish, low pro-social options and less often chose the high pro-social options, as compared with low scorers on the questionnaire. The high scorers also gave more selfish open-ended answers when first asked how they’d respond to each scenario.

Another measure was how satisfied the participants thought they would be with their chosen course of action, and how satisfied the needy person in the scenario would be. The high and low scorers on the Autism-Spectrum Quotient did not differ in their ratings of the needy person’s satisfaction with the different response options. However, the high scorers tended to say they personally would be more satisfied after making more selfish choices, and less satisfied after more altruistic choices.

This is a sensitive topic. If misinterpreted or over-simplified the findings risk bolstering the stigmatisation of people with autism. It’s important to realise that the study did not involve people diagnosed with autism, but rather a “sub-clinical population” (in the researchers’ words) who scored highly on a self-report measure of autistic traits. Moreover, the study did not involve real-world helping behaviour. It was based on hypothetical scenarios, which raises problems of interpretation. For example, perhaps people with more autistic traits are simply more honest about how they’d behave. Perhaps they find it difficult to, or choose not to, treat the fictional character as they would a real person.

With these caveats in mind, these results hint tentatively at how autistic traits could affect people’s helping behaviour in the real world. The researchers also said their new Above and Beyond task could be used to measure the outcomes of training programmes designed to help people with autism. “Despite considerable attention to social skills training in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” write Jameel et al, “relatively little is known about the efficacy of such programmes or the key ingredients for success.”


Jameel L, Vyas K, Bellesi G, Roberts V, & Channon S (2014). Going ‘Above and Beyond’: Are Those High in Autistic Traits Less Pro-social? Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 44 (8), 1846-58 PMID: 24522968

Coming soon – the October issue of The Psychologist magazine is a special issue devoted to autism.

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

Young children with autism are more trusting than other children

Young children with autism have difficultly deliberately deceiving other people, now a new study has shown that they are also more trusting than their neurotypical peers. These two characteristics may be related to the same underlying cause – namely, difficulty representing the mental states of others (known as “Theory of Mind”), although more research is needed to demonstrate this.

Li Yi and her colleagues tested 22 children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD; average age 7), 27 neurotypical age-matched controls, and 26 IQ-matched neurotypical controls (average age 6). The children chose which of three boxes to look in for the reward of a sticker. When an adult stranger first looked in the boxes and indicated which box the sticker would be found, nearly all the children with autism looked in that box. By contrast only just over half the age-matched and IQ-matched neurotypical controls did so.

In another condition, the children hid the sticker in one of the boxes while one of the researchers was out of the room. On returning, this researcher pointed to an incorrect box as the location of the sticker. Again, the children chose which box to look in for the reward. This time the children with autism, just like the neurotypical controls, nearly always looked in the correct box (where they themselves had placed the sticker). This shows that their trust is not unqualified. It is specifically when they lack knowledge themselves that they are more trusting of other people.

Yi and her team said “to the best of our knowledge, our findings are the first to report ASD children’s trusting tendency during the early years.” They advised that more research is needed to explore the reasons for autistic children’s high levels of trust. Apart from problems with Theory of Mind, other possible reasons include a tendency to forget previous instances of adults lying; or conversely, perhaps they tend to experience encounters with more trustworthy adults than neurotypical children do. Another avenue for future research, Yi’s team said, is to look for ways to teach children with autism not to be excessively trusting.


Yi L, Pan J, Fan Y, Zou X, Wang X, and Lee K (2013). Children with autism spectrum disorder are more trusting than typically developing children. Journal of experimental child psychology, 116 (3), 755-61 PMID: 23810631

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

Children with autism are less susceptible to the rubber hand illusion

The ability to tell where our bodies end and the rest of the world begins comes so naturally we tend not to give it much thought. In fact the brain mechanisms underlying bodily-identity are a vital part of basic social functioning. Given that social difficulties are a central part of autism, a team of US researchers led by Carissa Cascio wondered whether autism might be associated with differences in these basic mechanisms underlying body ownership.

To find out, they performed the first ever published test of how children on the autism spectrum experience the rubber hand illusion – a well-known procedure in psychology that exploits the mechanisms that give rise to feelings of body ownership.

Twenty-one children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and 28 neurotypical controls (aged 8 to 17 years) undertook the illusion with an experimenter who was blind to the aims of the study. Tested one at a time, each participant sat opposite the experimenter and placed their left forearm and hand on the desk, out of sight, within a purpose-built container. To the right of their concealed left hand was visible a realistic rubber left hand.

The experimenter stroked with a cosmetic brush the participant’s hidden left hand between the second and third knuckles of their index finger and at the same time, in full view, stroked the rubber hand in the equivalent location. For two 3-minute phases the stroking was done on the real hand and rubber hand in synchrony – to the person being stroked this often gives rise to the illusory sensation that the rubber hand is their own. For another two 3-minute phases, the stroking was done out of synch, which usually spoils or reduces the experience of the illusion.

The key finding is that, unlike the controls, the children with ASD didn’t experience the illusion after the first 3-minute phase of synchronous stroking; they only experienced it after the second phase. This was tested objectively by having the children close their eyes and indicate with their right index finger where they thought their left index finger was located. Mislocating their finger towards the location of the rubber hand was taken as a sign that they’d experienced the illusion. Children with ASD may be less susceptible to the rubber hand illusion during synchronous stroking because they prioritise proprioceptive (tactile) information over visual information (the sight of the stroking).

The children were also asked to say whether they’d experienced certain sensations during each stroking phase, such as “It seemed as though the touch I felt was caused by the brush touching the rubber hand”. Here another difference emerged between the groups, with some ASD children agreeing more to this statement after the asynchronous stroking. This suggests some of them experienced the stroking as being synchronous when it wasn’t, perhaps because they have a less fine-tuned sense of whether information from different sensory modalities is being experienced in time.

The clinical relevance of the results is hinted at by the fact that ASD children with more impaired empathy scores tended to experience the rubber hand illusion even less strongly (based on their being less likely to mislocate their left index finger towards the rubber hand).

“Our results suggest that the malleability of the sense of body ownership is compromised in ASD, which may correspond to an altered cortical representation of the bodily self,” the researchers said. “This in turn may give rise to diminished capability for perspective-taking and empathy, as is seen in ASD.”
Cascio, C., Foss-Feig, J., Burnette, C., Heacock, J., and Cosby, A. (2012). The rubber hand illusion in children with autism spectrum disorders: delayed influence of combined tactile and visual input on proprioception. Autism DOI: 10.1177/1362361311430404

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.