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Autism and Implicit Learning

As you might expect, we tend to have a particular interest in any news relating to autism and education. After all, our daily work is centered on better understanding of how children with autism learn and how we can alter our curriculum to better serve our students. We mention that because in this week’s research round-up, we’re taking a look at a recent Carnegie Mellon University study that highlights a crucial difference in the way learning occurs in the brains of adults with autism spectrum disorder.

Doctors Sarah Schipul and Marcel Just both examined how the brains of typical and ASD individuals gradually became adapted to visual patterns they were learning, while not ever becoming aware of the pattern. This phenomenon is better known as implicit learning.

By making use of functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) imaging, Schipul and Just were able to identify that the brain activation of ASD individuals was far slower to become familiar with the pattern they kept seeing, thus signifying that their brains failed to register the “oldness” of the patterns to the same extent that the control participants did. In fact, the brains of the control participants kept decreasing their level of activation with repeated exposures to the patterns being learned, which indicated that the control subjects were showing adaptation whereas the decreases in the brains of participants with ASD were much smaller.

In addition, they also discovered that the severity of an individual’s autism symptoms correlated with the brain’s ability to adapt to patterns. Thus, these findings provide crucial insight into why many real-world implicit learning situations –for example, the ability to learn to interpret facial expressions—are extremely difficult for those with autism.

“This finding provides a tentative explanation for why people with ASD might have difficulty with everyday social interactions, if their learning of implicit social cues has been altered,” said Just, the D.O. Hebb University Professor of Psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

To get the data that resulted in the above findings, the team worked with a sample group of sixteen high-functioning adults with ASD and sixteen neurotypical adults, with each group being taught how to perform an implicit dot pattern-learning task. The target pattern in each case was a random array of dots, which over a period of time, can become increasingly familiar over multiple exposures, even with minor changes to the pattern.

At the end of each session the researchers had imaging that showed that while both groups’ brain activation was similar at the start of the session, by the end, the typical participants showed diminished activation in the posterior regions. However, the ASD participant’s brain activation did not only decrease in learning, but it increased in the frontal and parietal regions.

“Behaviorally, the two groups looked very similar throughout the task—both the ASD and typical participants were able to learn how to correctly categorize the dot patterns with reasonable accuracy,” Just said. “But, because their activation levels differed, it tells us that there may be something qualitatively different in the way individuals with ASD learn and perform these kinds of tasks and reveals insights into the disorder that are not discernable from behavior alone.”

Going forward, the researchers hope that the data they are compiling will shine the light on aspects of ASD that we are barely cognizant of and with the above findings, they stand a strong chance of reaching their goals.