News: Scientific American column on understanding autism

Is a deficit in prediction skills a key to understanding autism?

In an opinion piece dated 6 August 2021 in Scientific American, Pamela Feliciano proposed that problems in predicting what is likely to happen next may be the feature that underlies many different features of autism. Referring to a study by Ghandi et al. (2021), Ms. Feliciano argued that difficulties people with autism spectrum disorder experience, such as "intense insistence on sameness, atypical responses to sensory stimuli and a remarkable ability to detect small details," may all be related to difficulties with prediction.

In a pair of studies, Ghandi et al. compared individuals with autism (community diagnosis confirmed by ADOS-2 assessment) to individuals who did not have autism ("neuro-typical"). Using galvanic skin response for one comparison and magneto-encephalography for another comparison, Ghandi and colleagues noted differences between the autistic and neuro-typical groups when they listened to sequences of sounds.

According to Ghandi et al., their

results from two different measurement modalities, galvanic skin response and magneto-encephalography, [showed] atypical habituation in autistic individuals. Whereas neurotypical participants showed clear habituation to a sequence of repeated auditory tones, the autistic participants exhibited little, if any, reduction in their physiological and neural responses as the sequence progressed.

The researchers provided important limitations about their finding (e.g., small samples, exclusively male participants). Much work remains before these findings can be considered definitive.

In her editorial, Ms. Feliciano related the findings to her own experiences with her son, who has autism:

As a parent and a researcher, my greatest hope is to help moms like me, children like Dylan, and families like mine. The challenges of understanding autism are many, but a better understanding of predictive patterns in autism will help us all—researchers and families—understand the many “whys” that remain a hallmark of autism.

References

Feliciano, P. (2021). A new idea that could help us understand autism: Some of the condition’s most challenging traits might be explained by deficits in predictive skills. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-new-idea-that-could-help-us-understand-autism/

Ghandi, T. K., Tsourides, K., Singhal, N., Cardinaux, A., Jamal, W., Pantazis, D., Kjelgaard, M., & Sinha, P. Autonomic and electrophysiological evidence for reduced auditory habituation in autism, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 51(7), 2218-2228. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-020-04636-8

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