FEATURE | Posted Nov. 20, 2014

Learning and adults with high-functioning autism

Adults with autism may be "wired" to ignore external feedback — even when it's positive

Distracted student © iStockphoto
Adults with autism may benefit from brain-training games, therapy or medication to help them recognize when they have done something right -- so they can repeat it.

Learning is complicated for students with autism. Their challenges include the social pitfalls of interacting with classmates and their instructors and ignoring their areas of intense focused interest, such as video games, which may compete for their attention.

New research from the UC Davis MIND Institute may have identified another important reason why students with autism often find it difficult to attend even to positive reinforcement from instructors in educational settings: their brains are wired to make it more challenging.

The researchers said that college-aged and older people with autism may benefit from specialized brain training games, other attention skill-building therapies, and/or medications, to help them more easily recognize and learn from feedback when they have done something right, so that they can repeat it.

“It may be especially important to make positive feedback explicit and salient in academic and intervention settings,” said Marjorie Solomon, lead study author and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and an expert in learning among high-functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

“Indeed, this strategy already is used in autism treatments for young children, in which praise is delivered using very clear positive affect, and in social skills groups for high-functioning school-age and adolescent children,” Solomon said.

Marjorie Solomon © UC Regents
Marjorie Solomon

The study, “Feedback-driven trial-by-trial learning in autism spectrum disorders,” is published online in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

For people with high-functioning autism, learning straightforward facts and memorizing information about areas of special interest may not be problematic, and may even be an area of superior performance.

But “goal-directed” learning — the need to assimilate and then recall information that may be abstract but necessary to achieve an understanding of the big picture — often is difficult. This can make areas like math problem-solving and reading comprehension very challenging.

FMRI examination of adults with autism

To examine the reasons for these difficulties, Solomon and her colleagues launched what may be the first study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the brains of individuals with autism when engaged in a probabilistic learning task. In the task, participants received feedback which was not always straightforward (much like what often is encountered in the real world) and were asked to develop an understanding of what it meant.

Solomon and her colleagues recruited 47 participants, 22 primarily male high-functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorder between the ages of 18 and 35 who lived in Northern California and 25 typically developing individuals who acted as controls.

Both sets of participants were given a series of computerized tasks in which they were asked to select from pairs of printed characters and received feedback on whether the pairs they chose were correct or incorrect. The test was designed to gauge how well test-takers were able to adjust their responses to the feedback they received.

The research found that the study participants with autism were less able to respond to reward-based information, and used a different a different circuit in their brains, involving the anterior cingulate and orbito-frontal cortices, “indicating trial-by-trial activity related to feedback processing.”

In other words, unlike the typically developing individuals, who recruited other parts of their brains including the prefrontal cortex which promotes working memory, people with autism were less likely to learn from prior experiences and carry the information forward to make informed decisions.

About the UC Davis MIND Institute

MIND Institute © UC RegentsWorld-renowned scientists engage in collaborative, interdisciplinary research to find the causes of and develop treatments and cures for autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), fragile X syndrome, 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, Down syndrome and other neurodevelopmental disorders. For more information, visit http://mindinstitute.ucdavis.edu

“Our research suggests that intervention strategies for high-functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorder should be geared to helping them learn to read cues so they can understand the value of rewarding stimuli, and to better hold this information in mind for consideration in new similar situations” Solomon said.

“Further research will help determine where in the learning process we should focus treatment strategies, and whether the best ones would include medications, neural retraining, or psychosocial interventions.”

Other study authors include Michael J. Frank, J. Daniel Ragland, Anne C. Smith, Tara A. Niendam, Tyler A. Lesh, David Grayson, Jonathan S. Beck, John C. Matter and Cameron S. Carter, all of UC Davis.

The research was supported by a grant from the Brain Behavior Research Foundation (Robert, Martha, and John Atherton Foundation) and the National Institutes of Health grant K08 MH-074867.