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Autistic children have trouble catching on to patterns in real-world scenarios

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autistic children have trouble searching for objects in real world environmentsChildren with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often exhibit a heightened ability to pick out patterns and excel at other visual-spatial tests. But a new study puts this presumption to the test in a more real-world scenario and finds that ASD kids are actually found wanting when it comes to search skills.

The stereotype that ASD children are good with patterns and searching have been based largely on small-scale tests, such as computer- or table-top-based assays. But these tests "fail to model abilities in the larger-scale context that is typical of everyday life, including finding carrots in the grocery store, looking for one’s keys in the kitchen," noted researchers in the new study, which was published online December 20 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers instructed 20 children (aged 8 to 14 years) with autism or Asperger syndrome and 20 typically developing kids to individually search a test room where one of 16 spots included a hidden target. These targets were on one side of the room in 80 percent of the 40 hunts each child did, and normally developing kids were quick to pick up on the pattern. Those with ASD, however, seemed to struggle both with detecting the underlying probability of the target’s location—and with optimizing their own searching pattern.

The apparent searching deficit was not likely linked to disinterest in the activity, as the researchers noted that "all children found the foraging game enjoyable and were eager to find the hidden target as quickly as they could." The team suggested instead that the ASD children have a hard time applying rules of probability to larger environments—especially those in which they have to physically orient themselves and navigate.

The findings could have implications for individuals with ASD as they conduct their lives in the real world.

"The ability to work effectively and systematically in these kinds of tasks mirrors everyday behaviors that allow us to function as independent adults," Josie Briscoe, of the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol, said in a prepared statement. Although the research highlights an apparent deficit in ASD children, it also "offers an exciting opportunity to explore underlying skills that could help people with autism achieve independence."

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/Nick_Thompson

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  1. 1. akamran 3:36 pm 12/20/2010

    Maybe it’s that the kids are suddenly *part* of the search. The previous tests on pattern recognition did not involve the children themselves, they were only on a table, etc. Having to add yourself to the equation adds a whole new level of difficulty.

    It’s purely anecdotal (n=1), but I’m much better able to quickly analyze situations (see social cues and so on) happening to someone else (in a movie, in real life) than I am if it’s happening to me. If it’s happening to me, it is sometimes literally *years* before I figure out what was going on.

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  2. 2. hanvic 3:41 pm 12/20/2010

    after reading and hearing more about autism spectrum it explains so much i have beaten myself up for for years, and drove numerous secretaries to distraction over diaries. i have twice not been able to pick out my child on discharge from hospital, honestly; when i drive i get nano seconds of not knowing where i am in relation to what is happening on the outside of me. my short term memory is poor and i put things down all the time and don’t remember doing it. i lose umbrellas, gloves, scarves regularly and leave my bag behind over and over again. it is very stressful. explaining that i don’t do it on purpose to people who are good at these things makes you feel like a moron. i take wrong turnings regularly especially if the directions are compass points. i had kept myself constant and reversed the map of england in my head so that on my return journey east and west were the ‘wrong’ way round. i had west where it had been on the journey north but on the journey south it was on the other side. (hope you understand this. my husband was so exasperated with me he threw his dinner at the wall!)

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  3. 3. jtdwyer 7:00 am 12/21/2010

    I generally agree. It seems to me that I can be overwhelmed by the amount of specific information presented by an unfamiliar external environment, interfering with my ability to properly integrate that information with my own actions. However, my ability to function effectively in complex situations has increased significantly with age (now 60).

    While I realize that ASD symptoms are most noticeable in children, have there been studies of those effects in adults with either high functioning ASD or Aspergers? Isn’t it possible that those childhood symptoms diminish with physical development, maturation and/or experience? While many ASD sufferers’ development is certainly severely affected, assessing the long term effects as a function of severity could help to narrow the focus of specific treatments.

    I have some concerns that my progeny (who are these days being diagnosed) will sometime be inappropriately considered generally disabled – despite also being gifted.

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  4. 4. JoeMerchant 11:20 am 12/21/2010

    I think the concept of "DifferentlyAbled" comes into play here. ASD persons are better at some kinds of pattern recognition, worse at others.

    Of course, if "real life" is defined as those things that non-ASD people do well, then ASD people may not do as well.

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  5. 5. jtdwyer 12:48 pm 12/21/2010

    By the way, do computer programmers, for example, operate in the real-world, or do only fast-order cooks and grocery checkers? Some abilities can be valued above others, even in the real world…

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  6. 6. bucketofsquid 9:54 am 12/22/2010

    As a computer programmer I can say with some authority that no, we do not operate in the real world. We function in a quasi-real world of absolutes and aggregates. Sorry, that was humor or what passes for humor for me. One of my pet peeves is how so much of society is oriented to forcing everyone into the same mould when it is completely inappropriate. Diversity of skill sets brings great strength and adapability but try telling the public school system in America that.

    I have a son who is both learning disabled and gifted. The schools had a terrible time figuring out what to do with him because his "disability" wasn’t on their list of issues they had plans for. He barely made it through high school but in college he is doing great.

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