What you can't ignore: examining distraction in autism

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Psychology

Abstract

We have a limited capacity for processing the vast amount of sensory information available to us at any given time. To prevent being overwhelmed, the brain must inhibit irrelevant, distracting information so that information which is relevant to the task at hand can be preferentially processed. For example, in a modern, open-plan office I must inhibit a variety of irrelevant stimuli when focusing on a spreadsheet. This may include colleagues chatter and typing, activity from the street visible through the window and the aroma of perfumes, aftershaves and microwaved food.

Autism is a life-long condition in which divergent brain development leads to differences in how a person perceives and interacts with the world around them. For many autistic adults, everyday environments such as offices can be over-stimulating. This can impact on an individual's ability to access the community and work. However, the experience of distraction in autism is currently poorly understood. Little is known about what distracts autistic people and why these experiences happen.

The overarching aim of the work in this project is to establish the what and why of distraction in autism. This will involve identifying which stimuli and contexts cause problems for autistic people (what) and the mental processes underlying less effective inhibition (why). In order to address these aims, this project will focus on the features of distracting stimuli. This approach is relevant as not all irrelevant information is equally distracting and the extent to which we are distracted can change over time. For instance (continuing the example above), if I am moved desks to sit by the office window, I may initially find the activity on the street more difficult to suppress compared with the ambient hum of background conversation in the office. However, after a few days sitting by the window the activity outside is likely to become much less distracting.

In this project I will investigate whether autistic people's experience of distraction is determined by the nature of the stimuli and context. This will be addressed by combining subjective accounts from autistic people with experimental testing to provide a comprehensive insight into the nature of distraction, drawn from the rich detail and robust measurement which will be provided by this integrated approach. I will compile subjective accounts from autistic people, which can be explored for common themes and concepts regarding distracting experiences. I will also use lab-based studies in which the participant will be asked to make judgments about a target, while presented with distracting information that they are asked to ignore. Importantly, the features of the distracting stimuli will be carefully manipulated, such as whether they include sounds or are moving, and the context in which they are presented, such as whether the distractors are likely to appear in particular locations more frequently. Measuring participant's responses, eye movements towards the distracting stimuli and computational modelling will generate novel insight into the circumstances in which inhibition is impaired in autism and the mental processes underlying these differences.

The information from subjective accounts and experimental work in this project will better elucidate distractor interference in autistic adults. This will lead to a considerable theoretical advance in understanding overwhelming perceptual experiences in the condition. Findings will be used to develop tools to advise on adjustments that can be made to everyday environments so that they are more accessible for autistic people.

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