As social people, when considering autism, we tend to focus on its social challenges, such as difficulty communicating, making friends, and showing compassion. I am a geneticist and the mother of a teenage boy with autism. I am also most worried about whether he has conversational skills to do basic things, such as shopping for groceries, or whether he will have a real friend. But I assure you that the non-social characteristics of autism are also the top priorities in our lives: a strong insistence on identity, an atypical response to sensory stimuli, and an extraordinary ability to discover small details. Many attempts have been made to explain all the symptoms of autism as a whole, but there is no single theory that can explain all the puzzling and diverse features of the disorder.
Now, more and more neurocognitive scientists believe that many of the characteristics found in patients with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may be mainly explained by deficiencies in predictive skills-and have begun to test this hypothesis.
Generally speaking, the human brain decides what will happen next based on the current situation and what we recall from previous experiences. Scientists speculate that differences in people with ASD can interfere with their predictive ability. It’s not that people with autism cannot predict; their predictions are flawed because they perceive the world “too accurately”. Their predictions are less affected by previous experience, but more by their current experience. They overemphasize “now”.
When the connection between events and consequences is clear, ASD patients can understand them. But the real world is a constantly changing environment with a lot of complexity, and sometimes contingency and deviation are not so obvious. Many people with autism have difficulty figuring out which cues are the most important because there are so many other cues that complicate the environment and compete for attention.
Five years ago, the Simmons Foundation’s Autism Research Program was launched spark (Simons Powering Autism Research for Knowledge) Harnessing the power of big data by involving hundreds of thousands of autism patients and their families in research. The more people involved, the deeper and richer these data sets will be, thereby facilitating research and expanding our knowledge of biology and behavior to develop more precise methods for medical and behavioral problems. Scientists are now recruiting SPARK participants to study the directly observable aspects of predictions more closely. Two components can be observed: the ability to understand the connection between “antecedent” events and their consequences, and the response to predictable events.
A recent study published by Pawan Sinha of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that people with ASD Very different reaction Compared with the metronome without ASD, the tone sequence played on the metronome is very regular. People without ASD are “accustomed” to regular pitch sequences; over time, people with ASD cannot adapt to these sounds. On the contrary, their reaction within a few minutes after hearing the sequence of tones is still as powerful as when they played for the first time. Using SPARK’s powerful digital platform, Sinha and colleagues are now able to conduct similar experiments on more autistic patients online.
As the researchers admit, the link between reduced habits of autistic patients and real-world challenges is unclear, but testing multiple aspects of prediction in a more natural context with more people will help address this Knowledge gap. Ultimately, a better understanding of the cognitive processes of autism may help improve interventions—for example, by tailoring different prediction-based interventions to individuals with different prediction styles.
Every teenager’s parents have their own challenges. For me, one of the problems my son has always faced is that he seems to really enjoy participating in behaviors that cause someone’s reaction. Some of these “habits” have little effect. For example, he likes to empty entire bottles of soap, detergent and cooking oil. He also likes to throw things out the window. More than once, I went out for a dog walk and noticed that there were pants on the roof of our house.
Although one cannot deny the satisfaction inherent in pouring large quantities of high-quality olive oil into the sewer, I cannot fully understand why my son would do these things. Despite this, I still strongly suspect that this is because he knows that these actions will cause my foreseeable reaction. I learned that the more I respond, the more I encourage him to do so. So, now, when I find an empty bottle of detergent — or a whole roll of toilet paper in a bowl — in the laundry room, I don’t care.
Then comes the test test: one of his most problematic behaviors is touching the back end of our dog. He knew he shouldn’t do this. He knew that someone might gasp loudly and then told him to wash his hands. If his predictive ability is impaired, then it must be satisfactory to do something that can elicit a predictable response. Having a scientific framework that helps explain his behavior can help me deal with them. More importantly, a better understanding will increase my compassion for him, help me explain his behavior to others more clearly, and help me remember not to react strongly.
Scientists also use SPARK to test other aspects of autism prediction, including language. Harvard University scientist Jesse Snedeker is recruiting participants from SPARK to test whether children with autism are unlikely to make accurate predictions during the natural language understanding of simple sentences. These experiments will explore the use of linguistic context to predict whether the upcoming words will be different when listening to stories or conversations with autistic children. The results will help scientists understand whether the predictive barriers of different autistic patients are broader or more specific to different areas.
As a parent and researcher, my greatest hope is to help moms like me, children like Dylan, and families like me. There are many challenges in understanding autism, but a better understanding of the predictive patterns of autism will help all of us-researchers and families-understand the many “reasons” that are still hallmarks of autism.
This is an opinion and analysis article; opinions expressed Author or author Not necessarily those Scientific american.