February 19, 2016

Everyone has heard the saying “repetition is the mother of all learning,” but new research suggests that for individuals on the autism spectrum, repetitive learning styles may actually impede the ability to learn and generalize new information.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University recruited adults diagnosed with high- functioning autism for a study to determine their ability to adapt to new information. Participant’s processing time for a computerized task was measured against the processing time of a neurotypical control group.

Participants were shown 3 horizontal bars in a specific location on a computer screen. They were then presented with the same image in the same location and were asked to determine the location of the bars while researchers measured their ability to quickly and correctly locate the bars. For the first four days, the bars remained in the original location and both the control group and the ASD group performed the task quickly without issue. Researchers then switched the location of the bars and measured speed and accuracy of location for both groups.

Those in the ASD group not only had more trouble finding the bars once they changed locations, but the participants’ previous learning impeded their ability to adapt to the new information. This indicated that their learning became so fixed and hyper-specific that it adversely affected their ability to generalize previously learned information. Some participants were never able to learn the second location as well as the first, which indicated that the initial repetitive teaching of the concept without variation was a detriment that affected participants’ ability to adjust to the changes in their environment.

New York University researcher David Heeger concluded that “Repeated stimulation leads to sensory adaptation which interferes with learning and makes learning specific to the adapted conditions. Without adaptation, learning is more efficient and can be generalized.”

Applying this information to the practical world of autism therapy is imperative to increasing positive outcomes for children who have a tendency towards fixedness and rigidity. Professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Pittsburgh summarized by saying that, “Individuals with autism need to be taught in ways that support or promote generalization rather than in ways that reinforce over specificity.”

Tips for parents to promote generalization:

  • Give your child opportunities to increase their dynamic thinking by introducing just noticeable differences to your routine.
  • Teach new concepts using a variety of materials and stimuli.
  • Practice new skills in multiple environments and with different people.
  • Spotlight your child’s ability to handle dynamic situations and encourage their willingness to try new things.
  • Keep things silly! Introduce games and silliness to your routine to encourage your child to find joy in little changes.

Harris, H., Israeli, D., Minshew, N., Bonneh, Y., Heeger, D. J., Behrmann, M., & Sagi, D. (2015). Perceptual learning in autism: over-specificity and possible remedies. Nature neuroscience.

-Amber Sobrio-Ritter