A study published March 22 in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology revealed that people with autism have a greater than normal capacity for processing information. The research may explain way some with autism excel in highly technical fields.
Those with autism often have an increased ability to concentrate on one task and can have very focused areas of interest. There is a body of research that shows that these individuals can be more sensitive to other stimuli, often unable to ‘filter out’ irrelevant stimuli, such as flashing lights or particular sounds.
Professor Nilli Lavie, from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL, hypothesizes that this combination of the ability to focus and a vulnerability to distraction might be the result of 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,” she says.
Professor Lavie, together with Dr Anna Remington and Dr John Swettenham from the UCL Developmental Science department, tested this theory 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. Participants were asked to simultaneously 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, as the number of letters increased, thus increasing the difficulty, the detection performance of the typical adults was impaired — 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.
Professor Lavie says: “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.”
Professor Lavie believes that the finding may help explain why people with autism spectrum disorders, such as Asperger’s syndrome, may excel in some careers such as IT, which can require intense concentration and the ability to process a great deal of information from a computer screen.
Dr. Stephen Shore, Assistant Professor at Adelphi University, a published author on autism believes that the key to finding successful employment for those with autism is through exploiting their natural strengths and interests.
“There are clearly careers, such as in IT, that can benefit from employing people with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders.” says Professor Lavie.
Dr, Joshua Weinstein, CEO and Founder of ICare4Autism, has initiated the autism workforce development initiative, as part of the Global Autism Center on Mt Scopus. It will have a special targeted program to place persons with Asperger’s Syndrome and other high functioning individuals in technology sector jobs. This initiative will offer unique opportunities to Israelis with autism, their families and – by creating new high value-added private sector opportunities – the entire community. By creating an urgently needed replicable model, it will also have a global reach as well as an immediate local impact.