As social beings, we tend to focus on autism’s social issues, such as difficulty speaking, establishing friends, and displaying empathy.
I am a geneticist and the mother of an autistic adolescent.
I’m concerned, too, about whether he’ll be able to carry on a conversation and go grocery shopping, as well as whether he’ll ever have a true buddy.
However, I can promise you that the nonsocial aspects of autism are also prominent in our lives: a strong desire for uniformity, unusual sensory responses, and a great ability to identify little details.
Many attempts have been made to explain all of the symptoms of autism holistically, but no single theory has yet been able to explain all of the condition’s perplexing and unique characteristics.
Many features identified in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may now be explained centrally by deficiencies in predicting skills, according to a rising number of neurocognitive scientists who have begun testing this notion.
In general, the human brain predicts what will happen next based on the current situation and what we remember from previous experiences.
Scientists believe that persons with ASD have peculiarities that make it difficult for them to foresee the future.
It’s not that persons with autism can’t make predictions; it’s just that their forecasts are inaccurate because they perceive the environment “too precisely.”
Their forecasts are more impacted by what they are feeling right now than my previous experiences.
They place an excessive emphasis on the present.
People with ASD can learn when the links between an event and its consequences are very evident.
However, the real world is a complicated, ever-changing environment in which contingencies and deviations are not always clear.
Because there are so many additional cues cluttering the world and competing for attention, many people with autism have trouble figuring out which ones are the most significant.
SPARK (Simons Powering Autism Research for Knowledge) was created five years ago by the Simons Foundation’s autism research program to harness the potential of big data by involving hundreds of thousands of people with autism and their families in research.
The larger the number of people who engage, the more detailed and richer these data sets becomes, accelerating research that is advancing our understanding of biology and behavior to develop more accurate responses to medical and behavioral challenges.
SPARK participants are now being sought by scientists who want to focus on directly observable parts of prediction.
The ability to learn the link between an “antecedent” event and its outcome, as well as responses to predictable events, are two components that can be detected.
People with ASD had very different responses to a highly regular sequence of tones played on a metronome than those without ASD, according to Pawan Sinha of MIT, who recently published the findings of a study.
Persons without ASD become accustomed to the series of regular tones over time, whereas people with ASD do not.
Rather, their responses were just as strong after several minutes of hearing the tone sequence as they were when it was first played.
Sinha and colleagues may now conduct similar research online with a far larger number of people with autism because of SPARK’s robust digital platform.
The link between lower habituation and real-world issues in persons with autism is still unclear, according to the researchers, but studying many facets of prediction in more naturalistic circumstances in a wider group of people will help close that knowledge gap.
A better understanding of the cognitive processes in autism may eventually aid in the improvement of interventions, such as customizing different prediction-based interventions to individuals with varied prediction styles.
Every parent of a teenager faces obstacles, and for me, one of my son’s persistent issues is that he appears to enjoy engaging in actions that evoke a response from others.
Some of these “habits” have minor ramifications.
He enjoys emptying entire bottles of soap, detergent, and cooking oil, for example.
He also enjoys throwing stuff out the window. I’ve observed pants on the roof of our house several times while walking the dog.
While there’s no denying the pleasure of pouring a large amount of fine olive oil down the drain, I’ll never fully comprehend why my son does any of these things.
Still, I have a feeling it’s because he knows these actions will elicit a predictable reaction from me.
I’ve discovered that the more I reply, the more likely he is to continue acting in this manner.
So now I don’t freak out if I find an empty bottle of detergent in the laundry room or a full roll of toilet paper in the toilet.
Then there’s the ultimate test: touching our dog’s rear end is one of his most troublesome tendencies.
He’s well aware that he shouldn’t be doing this. He is well aware that someone will most certainly gasp out and then instruct him to wash his hands.
It makes it natural that doing things that generate predictable responses would be pleasant if his ability to predict is hindered.
Having a scientific foundation to understand his actions makes it easier for me to deal with them.
More significantly, a greater understanding enhances my empathy for him, allows me to better explain his actions to others, and reminds me not to react harshly.
SPARK is also being used to examine other areas of autism prediction, such as language.
Jesse Snedeker at Harvard University is looking for SPARK participants to see if children with autism are less likely to make correct predictions during natural language understanding of simple sentences.
These studies will see if children with autism differ in their ability to use linguistic context to predict forthcoming words when listening to a tale or conversation.
The findings will aid scientists in determining whether prediction problems in people with autism are more general or unique to certain domains.
My biggest desire as a parent and researcher is to assist parents like me, children like Dylan, and families like mine.
The problems of understanding autism are numerous, but a deeper knowledge of autism’s predictive patterns will aid us all—researchers and families—in comprehending the many “whys” that remain a feature of autism.
the author is Pamela Feliciano, Ph.D., is the scientific director of SPARK (Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research through Knowledge) and is a senior scientist at SFARI (Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative). SPARK is a SFARI initiative that seeks to accelerate autism research through a vibrant and informative online platform that meaningfully engages individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families and connects them to interested researchers.
Read also: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html