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New Study: People with Autism Might Be Less Susceptible to Surprise

New Study: People with Autism Might Be Less Susceptible to Surprise

A team of researchers from the United Kingdom has found something new about adults with autism. They recently published their findings in the well-respected journal, Nature Neuroscience. This team helped discover some explanations for autistic behaviors. What they found might help us understand why people with autism view our world in a different way.

Who were the researchers?

Doctors Rebecca Lawson, Christoph Mathys, and Geraint Rees are scientists who work at the University College London. They specialize in the field of psychology and neurology. Their most recent work focuses on studying the mechanism behind distinct behaviors seen in autism.

Why scientists decided to study how people with autism deal with change

People with autism are most comfortable when they have routines and habits in place. They do not like to deal with change or chaos. They also have trouble noticing correlations that are considered “normal”. For example, researchers explain that when we see socks in the drawer of a dresser, we have noticed from past experience that this is considered normal. Sometimes, people with autism might have trouble making these connections. It could explain why they can have problems noticing social cues, like a smile when someone is happy. The team of researchers wanted to take one step further and understand how people with autism relate to change and variability in their surroundings. They called this concept a person’s “volatility learning”. This type of learning is a way people adjust to different levels of chaos in an environment so they can adjust expectations. No one had ever looked at how people with autism might learn their sensory expectations differently.

How people typically react to changes in our volatile environment

Most people are able to adapt expectations based on a changing environment. For example, if things are quiet and calm such as a Sunday evening in your own home, that would be a low volatility environment. Your threshold for surprise would then be very sensitive because you don’t expect much change. But when you throw a party and invite 100 guests, you know to mentally prepare yourself that there might be many more dishes in the sink, and definitely a much bigger mess in your house than you’re used to. Humans adjust their expectations based on the dynamic world that we live in. Because they can change their expectations, they can adjust based on the level of chaos they are currently in. That means that once the party is over and everything’s cleaned up, they will go back to expecting less dirty dishes and less clutter.

How someone with autism might react to increasing chaos

For someone with autism, it gets a little more complicated. It seems that people with autism constantly operate as if there is a very volatile environment around them. This results in a downplayed level of surprise even if the situation is surprising. For someone with autism, it might be difficult to realize connections because they are constantly in a mindset of chaos. They might never make the connection that socks always go in the drawer because it's hard to realize these connections if you think everything around you is disorganized. They might not be surprised to find even a shoe in the sink or a pillow since they were never able to build the connections that those items don't belong there. This theory also helps understand why many people with autism struggle with social cues. When someone is sad, they sometimes cry. This is a connection that most people are able to make. For someone with autism, they might not understand that this action and emotion are connected.

The research design

The researchers decided to find out whether people with autism differ in volatility learning. Doctors Lawson, Mathys, and Rees recruited 49 adults to participate in their study. Twenty-four of these people had autism. The study recruits were asked to perform a task. During this task, the participants were shown pictures of either faces or houses on their computer screens. These images would correlate to a noise cue. They used not only high-pitch and low-pitch sounds, but also the absence of sound as a cue before showing the figures. Using a computer, the researchers studied how each person learned about this pattern as well as their response times. They also studied how surprised the subjects were by the images.

The researchers also studied physical changes of surprise

To study surprise, the scientists also measured changes in pupil size. This is because the pupil is thought to be related to the fight or flight response. When something surprises you, like a football whizzing at your head or a friend jumping out to scare you, your brain releases adrenaline and other chemicals that cause changes in your body. These changes help you either fight a perceived threat or run away quickly in an escape. One of these changes is the dilation of the pupils so that they are larger in size. That’s because larger pupils let in more light from the environment, and the idea is that it expands someone’s visual senses. When you’re threatened, it’s certainly useful to use heightened senses! For their study, they found that they were able to measure surprise using a computer formula and the pupil measurements they collected.

Did people with autism learn differently?

Whether or not they had autism didn’t matter. Everyone who participated in the study did very well to learn the task at hand. Both groups were just as successful at figuring out the correlation between photos and sound pitch. The researchers also noted that response times were just as fast between autistic people and other subjects.

So, what was different about people with autism?

It all has to do with volatility learning. People with autism seem to always be in a state where they are expecting a volatile environment. For them, it’s hard to notice increasing chaos because they feel they are always in a state of chaos. They’re unable to adapt their expectations to changing levels of volatility in their surroundings. Because they are constantly in a mindset of volatility, it could explain why the researchers found that autistic people showed less surprise. The team noticed an interesting correlation: People with more severe autism showed the least amount of surprise.

What does a more volatile environment have to do with making connections?

It’s hard for people with autism to make connections. That’s one of the reasons that they struggle with social cues, which are rooted in making subtle connections. When your brain is prepared for a volatile environment, it makes it seem like patterns that happen are more random rather than real associations. For example, the socks in the drawer for someone with autism might not seem like an association, while most other people recognize that socks belong in the drawer. Similarly, a frown of frustration might not mean anything to someone with autism because they never truly understood that it’s tied to a feeling in the other person. The study found that people with autism who were better at learning what pictures to expect were also better at communication. Being able to make connections was directly linked to better communication skills!

This might explain why people with autism thrive with structure. A pre-set routine helps you feel stable when you cannot recognize patterns or structure around you.

How this can help you or your loved one

If we can understand more about why someone has trouble with a certain skill, we can better help them. For autism, this is no different. Knowing how people with autism think can help families in this community communicate in a better way. Understanding also bridges the way to acceptance. People are more likely to be patient with someone if they understand the reason they are different. Lastly, we need to always be working to better the lives for the autism community. Therapies are constantly being developed to help autistic people learn certain skills so they can be successful in society. It would be a good idea in the future to consider how autism impacts volatility learning when developing new therapies.