"I do not see the world as others do." Diminished perceptual adaptation, hypo-priors and autism.

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Psychology and Human Development


Autism is a complex developmental condition, most well known for the way that it affects how a person interacts and communicates with others. But autism can affect an individual's behaviour in other important and equally debilitating ways, such as in an obsessive desire for everything to be the same - like taking the exact same route to school every day - and in senses that are working too well - like being averse to florescent light - or not well enough - like being drawn to spinning objects. In this proposal, we suggest that this wide range of autistic behaviours might be caused by fundamental differences in the way that a person with autism perceives and interprets the world around them.

For all people, knowledge about the world arrives through our senses. To process this information rapidly and efficiently, the brain must continually "tune" its sensitivity to match what is in the environment. When one wakes during the night and turns on the light, at first, it is difficult to see very much at all until receptors in the eye gradually adjust to the new conditions. Such light "adaptation" is truly remarkable. It illustrates the way in which the brain constantly - and flexibly - "adapts" to changes in the outside world. This proposal asks what the world would look like, and how might be it interpreted, if these adaptation processes were disrupted? Specifically, it asks whether less flexible brain adaptation processes might be part and parcel of autism.

In the project, we will compare the perceptual functions of children with autism and typically developing children using innovative experimental techniques. We will see whether the perceptual experiences of children with autism are less "adaptable" than children without autism. We also want to know whether these differences occur generally throughout the brain or whether they might be specific to processing only certain types of sensory information. Furthermore, we will use powerful new forms of computer modelling, which have rarely been applied to the study of autism, but which can be of great assistance in pinpointing precisely which psychological processes might be different in autism.

We hypothesise that children with autism might be less adaptable because they rely too heavily on what they sense in the "here and now" rather than using prior knowledge - knowledge that they've accrued with experience - to shape and make sense of what is in the environment. The possibility that people with autism perceive the world as it "really is" rather than as imbued by prior experiences is a critical new insight: not only can it help explain the differences in the way people with autism experience the world but it might also explain some of the hallmark features of autism, especially the sensory sensitivities and their difficulties dealing with new situations and experiences.

If confirmed, our suggestion would offer a new way of thinking about, and studying, autism capable of playing a crucial role in interventions aimed at enabling people with autism to perceive and experience the world around them with less distress.

Technical Summary

Visual perception is a highly dynamic process, continuously recalibrating neural sensitivity to match the characteristics of the current environment. Such adaptation - ubiquitous in sensory systems - represents a rapid form of experience-dependent plasticity in which our current sensory experience is intimately affected by how we viewed the world only moments before. How would the world seem if these processes showed less adaptation?

We hypothesize that diminished adaptation shapes the perceptions of people with an autism spectrum condition, and may explain core features of the autism phenotype - especially the restricted and repetitive behaviours and sensory sensitivities. These hypotheses build on our previous work which has shown both that children with autism do not adapt as readily as typical children to changes in facial cues, and that the extent of adaptation is inversely related to degree of autistic symptomatology. We will also use Bayesian methods, a principled framework for deriving inferences in the face of uncertain information, to identify further the mechanisms underpinning diminished adaptation in autism, which we propose is due to fewer prior constraints or "hypo-priors".

This proposal uniquely combines human visual psychophysics, computational methods, and developmental psychopathology to probe further the pervasiveness of diminished adaptation in autism (Objective 1) and its computational causes (Objective 2). It is well documented that altered sensations and perceptions in autism can produce adverse effects on these individuals' everyday lives. The outputs of this research will have direct implications for our understanding of these altered perceptions and of the nature of autism itself. Identifying the mechanisms that underlie altered visual perception in autism is critical for the formulation of a new theoretical account of autism and in providing the necessary empirical base from which to develop effective interventions.

Planned Impact

Health and educational professionals and parents and carers are well aware of the debilitating impact sensory sensitivities and perceptual differences can have on the everyday lives of people with autism. Indeed, school, college, and hospital staff are trained in autistic differences in "sensory processing" and specialist therapeutic assistance is often sought from "sensory integration" experts. Yet there is consensus neither on the range and severity of these sensory sensitivities nor on the underlying causes of them. Advancing such knowledge is therefore vital, especially since these symptoms will be included for the first time in the revised diagnostic guidelines (DSM-5) for autism, due to be published in 2013.

The proposed research will crucially improve the knowledge base about these symptoms and their underlying cause(s) and the pathways to impact will bring that knowledge direct to core communities throughout the research process. The main non-academic beneficiaries of the proposed work include parents and carers of children with autism, educators, clinicians and health professionals, autistic people themselves, public, private, and third-sector organisations (including especially the charities, the National Autistic Society and Ambitious about Autism).


10 25 50
Description External Reference Group member for the Autism Education Trust
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in advisory committee
Description Member (Autism Researcher) of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Autism (AAPGA) Advisory Board
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
URL http://www.appga.org.uk
Description Researcher member of the Educational Psychologists Autism Special Interest Group
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Description Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation action
Amount € 3,904,188 (EUR)
Funding ID 688835 
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 02/2016 
End 07/2019
Description Philip Leverhulme Prize
Amount £100,000 (GBP)
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2016 
End 08/2018
Description Workshops in Experimental Psychology Society: Noisy brains? The role of internal noise in typical and atypical development
Amount £1,200 (GBP)
Organisation Experimental Psychology Society (EPS) 
Sector Learned Society
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2013 
End 12/2013
Title CFMT-C 
Description The Cambridge Face Memory Test for Children (CFMT-C) is a developmentally-sensitive test of face recognition memory for children aged between 6 and 12 years. 
Type Of Material Physiological assessment or outcome measure 
Year Produced 2014 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The paper describing the test only came out a few months ago. Nevertheless, we have had numerous requests for the use of this test already. 
URL http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0028393214002280
Description Brain Detectives - a science club for kids and young people 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact The Brain Detectives is a club for young people aged 6 - 18 years, who are interested in taking part in science-related research. Children help us search for clues about how the brain and mind work. And they also learn about the ways that children perceive and understand things and how these perceptions change with age.

We initially saw 31 young typically developing people in May 2013 and another 51 young people (including 2 children with autism) in August 2013, who took part in a session involving our MRC-funded research and other brain-related, engaging activities.

Since 2013, we have continued to run the Brain Detectives science workshops as part of our MRC grant. These were run in April 2014, July 2014, October 2014, April 2015, July 2015, February 2016 and we are about to run one in April 2016. These have included any child or young person who wishes to take part in our research and learn more about the brain and mind and have since included autistic children and typical children in the same sessions.

We have received numerous emails from parents to say how much their children enjoyed learning about the brain/mind. And several of the children in the first event also participated in the second event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013,2014,2015,2016
URL http://crae.ioe.ac.uk/post/123453941698/brain-detectives-is-back
Description Brain Detectives On Tour 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Type Of Presentation Workshop Facilitator
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact This activity built on the Brain Detectives science club and was specifically aimed at young people with autism (with limited communication and additional learning disabilities) educated within an autism resource base in a mainstream school. The subject was autistic perception (funded by the MRC) and we devised activities relating to each of the five senses that were accessible for these young people. Teachers were also informed about the subject of the MRC-funded research (sensory sensitivities in autism and their perceptual underpinnings).

We received excellent feedback from teachers and teaching assistants, who would like for us to repeat our session at a later date.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description Brain Detectives science club for autistic and no-autistic children 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact This year, we hosted three Brain Detectives science clubs for young people with autism (aged between 7 and 18 years). Young people come into the University for a half-day session to learn about the brain and the mind and take part in our (MRC-funded) research. We had previously run these events for typically developing children but had tweaked the structure and level of support so that young people with autism could also benefit from these workshops.

Since 2013, we have continued to run the Brain Detectives science workshops as part of our MRC grant. These were run in April 2014, July 2014, October 2014, April 2015, July 2015, February 2016, May 2016, October 2016 and February 2017. These have included any child or young person who wishes to take part in our research and learn more about the brain and mind and have since included autistic children and typical children in the same sessions.

We have had amazing feedback from young people with autism - who are so often excluded from such events - and their parents. Many children want to come back for the next events and some children now want to pursue science as a career.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2015,2016,2017
URL http://crae.ioe.ac.uk/post/82220398236/crae-news-brain-detectives-in-the-making-at-our
Description Pan London Autism Schools Network (PLASN) Research Group 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact The PLASN Research Group is a research-practice initiative, which brings together headteachers from 12 autism special schools in London (n~900 pupils) and researchers to discuss current practice and issues concerning the education of children on the autism spectrum.

In October 2012, the group identified sensory issues as an issue of significant concern in their schools. Since then, the group, chaired by Liz Pellicano, has been discussing and debating the key issues around sensory sensitivities in autism (e.g., their inclusion in DSM-5 and their putative causes) and research has been developed to try and better understand their impact in PLASN schools.

Researchers have worked collaboratively with head teachers, specialist advisory teachers and occupational therapists to devise both a survey to understand the current impact of sensory sensitivities on the learning of autistic pupils in PLASN schools and a research protocol (a series of case studies) for describing current practice to remediate the sensory sensitivities of their pupils.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012,2013,2014
Description Seeing the World Differently Practitioner conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact 50 practitioners and former participants attended a 1-day workshop held at UCL to debate and discuss sensory issues in autism.

Sensory sensitivities in autism can have a huge impact on individuals' everyday lives, but little is known about their causes. In 2012, Prof. Liz Pellicano was funded by the Medical Research Council to understand the differences in the way autistic children process information coming into their senses. Over the 3-year grant, researchers at the Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE) and our collaborators in Pisa, Italy, investigated whether sensory sensitivities in autism could be the result of seeing the world 'as it really is' rather than using knowledge gained through prior experience to help shape and guide their perceptual experiences.
At the Seeing the World Differently workshop:
• We presented innovative research findings into how children with autism might see the world differently;
• We invited attendees to discuss what these findings mean for children's lives in school and at home;
• We created! With designer Dr Katie Gaudion, who lead an initial, engaging hands-on sensory activity to get people thinking about sensory issues.

Illustrator and artise, Ben Connors, also created visual notes from the discussions during the day.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://crae.ioe.ac.uk/post/145502740383/making-sense-of-sensory-differences
Description Seeing the World Differently newsletter 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact We created a newsletter for the MRC-funded Seeing the World Differently study, which sought to tell our participants - the young people and their families - about the research with which they had been involved. A newsletter was sent out in hard copy to all families and participants for each year of the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2015,2016
Description Sensory booklet 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact As part of our MRC grant's pathways to impact plan, we worked with an illustrator, Ben Connors, and our Centre's autistic visiting research associate, Robyn Steward, to produce an information leaflet about sensory sensitivities in autism. The leaflet was targeted at educators, particularly in mainstream education, to help increase understanding and acceptance of sensory differences in autism.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://crae.ioe.ac.uk/post/130547691038/sensory-sensitivities-in-autism-explained
Description Sensory film 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Patients, carers and/or patient groups
Results and Impact We made a film in which young autistic people told us how they 'see the world' in their own words. We worked with staff and students at the Hendon Autism Resource Provision (HARP) at Hendon School in London, producer Dr Jake Fairnie and autistic campaigner, Robyn Steward, to create the film, which we hope will raise awareness of sensory differences.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnaB64KU6DY
Description Sensory umbrellas 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Many autistic people can be more or less sensitive to information coming into their senses than non-autistic people. Sensory sensitivities can have a huge impact on people's everyday lives. In some cases, this can be enjoyable or pleasurable but in others, this may be uncomfortable or even distressing. In September 2016, CRAE held a successful workshop on sensory differences in autism for 40 trainee teachers, as part of their Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) course at UCL Institute of Education, led by Professor Liz Pellicano. The workshop aimed to raise awareness and understanding of sensory sensitivities in autism and asked the trainee teachers to consider how this might impact autistic pupils' experience and learning in a classroom environment or school setting.During the workshop, former CRAE PhD student and designer, Dr Katie Gaudion, led a creative Ready, Steady, Make! interactive workshop to engage students and get them thinking about their own sensory likes and dislikes. Students worked in groups to discuss and explore each others preferences using sensory profiling cards, designed by Katie, and decorated umbrellas to reflect those preferences.

The workshop was also reported on in the Times Education Supplement: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/send-focus-why-understanding-autism-should-start-initial-teacher
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://crae.ioe.ac.uk/post/151002522323/trainee-teachers-workshop-making-sense-of-sensory