Superior perceptual capacity in autism: investigating universality, specificity and practical applications for learning.

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

Abstract

Over 1% of the UK population are on the autistic spectrum. These individuals experience atypical social communication and interaction, the presence of repetitive, rigid behaviours and altered sensory experiences. In addition, the cognitive profile of autistic people differs to that of individuals without the condition. For example, it has been suggested that autistic people show a greater tendency to process the details within a visual scene, rather than the overall gist. Cognitive ability also varies hugely within the autistic community: from minimally-verbal individuals with profound intellectual impairment, to those who are verbally fluent with above average IQ. These cognitive differences impact greatly on all aspects of life for autistic people, yet there is currently no consensus on the mechanisms underpinning cognitive strengths and how these might be harnessed to promote learning.

The current proposal centres on one such cognitive difference: the propensity for cognitively able autistic people to take in more perceptual information at any one time, compared to non-autistic individuals. This increased perceptual capacity can confer both practical advantages (enhanced information processing) and disadvantages (susceptibility to distraction) depending on the specific situation. It therefore offers an explanation for many aspects of autistic cognition seen within the research literature, as well as the sensory atypicalities that autistic people report experiencing.

We hypothesise that this superior perceptual capacity is a central aspect of autism - and can offer a target for intervention, and guide the search for the neurobiological mechanisms associated with autism. Further, the reframing of cognitive differences in terms of this ability rather than more traditional disability focused theoretical approaches has profound practical implications for the way we intervene to promote learning, employment and wellbeing for autistic individuals.

The proposed research will establish whether increased perceptual capacity extends to individuals across the entire autism spectrum, i.e. beyond those who are cognitively and verbally able. This will involve developing novel research tasks that are accessible to those who have intellectual impairment, a population that is often excluded from research. Second, it will determine whether this perceptual superiority is unique to autism, or is seen in those with other developmental conditions associated with altered sensory or attentional behaviour (e.g. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Williams Syndrome). Third, the project will look at how individual differences in perceptual capacity can inform personalised educational strategies and promote optimal learning in the classroom.

This research will be the first investigation of the universality and specificity of increased perceptual capacity in autism. The results will inform a new theoretical approach to the condition (or subgroups within it), and an accompanying shift in best practice for intervention. Currently, many support strategies involve the simplification of learning tasks or environments to help reduce distraction. However, if this distraction arises due to increased perceptual capacity, then modification strategies should seek to fill excess capacity rather than reduce the available information. The findings from the current research will be used to develop novel learning tools to help autistic individuals harness the potential benefits (in particular with respect to education, and subsequently employment) while minimising the more challenging aspects associated with increased capacity.
Further, the research takes a participatory approach: with autistic and non-autistic researchers working together to ensure the findings have a meaningful impact on the lives of autistic people and their families.

Planned Impact

The proposed research stands to advance theory and practice: informing a new cognitive approach to the theory of autism (or subgroups within it), and an accompanying shift in best practice for intervention. As such, there are a number of users and beneficiaries of the research, both within and beyond the academic community.

This project places community engagement at its core to ensure that the findings benefit those beyond academia. First, verbally and intellectually able autistic people stand to benefit from the work. For those without co-occurring intellectual impairment, understanding specific cognitive strengths associated with the condition reinforces a positive sense of identity. It also promotes self-advocacy of skills and abilities, along with the contributions that these can make to society - for example within employment. Crucially, the findings will also benefit autistic people with intellectual impairment and their caregivers. This is particularly significant in light of a recent report that revealed that only 4% of autism research funding from 2014-16 was spent on projects involving those with intellectual impairment (Autistica, 2019; Russell, Mandy, Elliot, White, Pittwood & Ford, 2019). The research will highlight how less verbally and cognitively able individuals can be involved in aspects of research that they were previously excluded from. This project will additionally allow a more accurate assessment of attention and perception abilities in this population, and establish whether the abilities of those with intellectual and verbal impairment have previously been underestimated due to research-task demands (rather than cognitive/linguistic deficits). This will allow parents/caregivers to more effectively advocate for their children's capabilities.

For both cognitively able autistic individuals and those with intellectual and verbal impairment, the research will also elucidate targets for intervention within education: both to minimise challenges associated with increased perceptual capacity, but also to harness the additional capacity to promote learning. As such, another key group of beneficiaries are education practitioners. The findings of the proposed research will be used to create new recommendations regarding a capacity-based approach to engaging autistic young people in the classroom. Through its primary base in the Centre for Research in Autism and Education, the project is ideally placed to deliver this aspect of the impact plan, bolstered by education-relevant expertise of the rest of the team.

The strength-based approach of the proposed research means that the findings may also have wider societal impact by raising awareness of autistic individuals in fields such as employability. Understanding autistic people's unique cognitive skills and preferences highlights the meaningful contribution (and indeed competitive edge) they can offer. This stands to benefit not only individual employers but also the UK economy, where the cost of lost employment for autistic adults is estimated at £9 billion per year (Knapp, Romeo, & Beecham, 2009).

The project findings will also have benefits for the wider neurodiverse community. For individuals with ADHD and individuals with WS, hypersensitivity has traditionally been observed as a deficit. By assessing perceptual capacity for the first time in these groups, we will be able to arm these populations with knowledge of whether their hypersensitivity also confers some benefits, with knock-on effects for educational recommendations.

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