The brain and autism: Challenging traditional testing
Tuesday, June 09, 2015
About 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to estimates from the CDC's Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network.
Studies have shown that parents of children with ASD notice a developmental problem before their child's first birthday. Concerns about vision and hearing were more often reported in the first year, and differences in social, communication and fine motor skills were evident from six months of age.
One of the hallmarks of ASD is superior low-level task performance alongside reduced performance in tasks that involve the processing of complex sensory data, which has led to the assumption that autism is characterized by a difficulty integrating individual units of perceptual data into global concepts.
In addition, those with ASD may have difficulty integrating multisensory input. Simply put, our ability to draw on existing knowledge to understand what is going on in our present lives and near future may be what is missing in those with autism.
Dr. Adam Zaidel, a member of Bar-Ilan University's Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center, and his researchers conducted a study in a 3-D environment in which a field of moving dots generated the feeling of traveling through space.
Thirty-six adolescent volunteers wearing 3-D glasses were strapped into motion-enabled simulators and experienced what it was like to travel through a field of virtual stars. The participants were asked to indicate their perceived direction of movement so the researchers could test their ability to create a global picture out of individual details.
The study revealed that heightened sensitivity to sensory noise may provide an alternative explanation for impaired performance. When there were no randomly-moving dots, autistic participants performed well, successfully determining the direction of movement at a level similar to that achieved by the non-ASD control group. When the noisy signals were introduced, however, the ASD group was significantly more affected than controls, indicating the presence of noise — rather than any innate integration deficit — makes the task more difficult for those with autism.
Traditionally, motion processing in ASD has been examined with a computer-based tool on which participants designate the direction of dots while a certain number of dots — the noise, so to speak — are randomly displaced. Such experiments measure the participants' ability to integrate isolated visual stimuli into a global picture.
Zaidel's study has challenged conventional wisdom, identifying a neurological phenomenon — a heightened sensitivity to "noisy" sensory signals — associated with autism pathology. This may prove that traditional methods that depend on noise as a modulator of task difficulty, have resulted in misinterpretation of how those with ASD integrate visual stimuli.
In a nutshell, this new study supports the idea that people with autism are highly sensitive to incoming sensory information and are predisposed to relying on external stimulation, with less knowledge, when interpreting the world around them.
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