Folks with autism possess greater adeptness than normal capacity for processing information even from rapid presentations. They are also better able to detect information defined as `critical`, claims a new study.
The new study, funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Economic and Social Research Council, may help to explain the apparently higher than average prevalence of people with autism spectrum disorders in the IT industry.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder that affects social interaction, communication and, often, learning.
However, people with autism show an increased ability to focus attention on certain tasks. Yet clinical reports backed up by some laboratory research show that these individuals can be more sensitive to the distracting effects of irrelevant stimuli, such as flashing lights or particular sounds, which can be easily ignored by people without the disorder.
Nilli Lavie, from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL, hypothesises that this combination of the ability to focus and a susceptibility to distraction might be caused by a higher than normal information processing capacity.
"Our work on perceptual capacity in the typical adult brain suggests a clear explanation for the unique cognitive profile that people with autism show," Lavie said.
"People who have higher perceptual capacity are able to process more information from a scene, but this may also include some irrelevant information which they may find harder to ignore. Our research suggests autism does not involve a distractibility deficit but rather an information processing advantage," she said.
Lavie, together with Anna Remington and John Swettenham from the UCL Developmental Science department, tested this hypothesis on 16 adult volunteers with autism spectrum disorders and compared their results against those of 16 typical adults in a task to challenge their perceptual load capacity.
The task involved looking at a circle of letters flashed very briefly on the screen and searching for some "target" letters. At the same time, the participants were also asked to detect a small grey shape that occasionally appeared outside the letter circle.
When only one or two letters were flashed on the screen, the researchers found that both groups could successfully find the letter and detect the shape.
However, making the search task more challenging by increasing the number of letters significantly impaired the detection performance of the typical adults, but not of the adults with autism spectrum disorders, who were able to detect the extra shape just as well in the more challenging conditions.
When the task became harder, they significantly outperformed the typical adults.
"Our study confirms our hypothesis that people with autism have higher perceptual capacity compared to the typical population. This can only be seen once the task becomes more demanding, with more information to process. In the more challenging task conditions, people with autism are able to perceive significantly more information than the typical adult," Lavie added.
The study has been recently published in Journal of Abnormal Psychology.