Does Autism Stem from a Failure to Make Predictions?

A paper from a group of researchers at MIT published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claims that autism may be caused by a malfunction resulting in the inability to make predictions.

It is widely known that individuals with autism crave routines and sameness. Any parent of a child with autism can share at least one story of going across town to buy a particular cereal when their local supermarket ran out of their child’s favorite, or of the meltdown that ensued when plans unexpectedly changed at the last minute. Researchers believe that responses like these may result from the child’s inability to make predictions, thus making the world a confusing, chaotic environment. For a child living in a world where nothing makes sense, daily routines can be a lifeline.

Lead author Pawan Sinha says,

“The need for sameness is one of the most uniform characteristics of autism. It’s a short step away from that description to think that the need for sameness is another way of saying that the child with autism needs a very predictable setting. . . These may be proactive attempts on the part of the person to try to impose some structure on an environment that otherwise seems chaotic.”

The article goes on to link sensory sensitivities with a lack of prediction as well. Neurotypical people are better able to tune out background noises and other sensory distractions because they are able to predict which will be ongoing, and which are only temporary.

This theory could also explain why individuals with autism have difficulty reading social cues and understanding the perspectives of other people. Again, the inability to predict what a conversational partner is going to say or do can make it difficult to understand what various social cues mean.

While the theories in this article are intriguing, there are those who disagree with their premise. John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s, feels these researchers are drastically off the mark. On his blog, he wrote,

“Anyone who has observed the prowess of a young Asperger video gamer would realize what a fool he’d be to bet against a kid like that’s predictive ability. But that’s not all. The hypothesis of this study does not hold up any better in my ‘real world’ experience.”

He goes on to suggest that neurotypical researchers could reach better conclusions by including the perspective of individuals with autism in their studies. He says,

“. . . with all due respect, this paper seems to be a perfect example of what happens (when) autistic behavior is interpreted by neurotypicals, as opposed to having the behavior explained by those who live it . . . As an autistic person I don’t perceive the same things as neurotypicals. I make my decisions based on different incoming data. It stands to reason that my predictions will be different because the inputs to my predictor are not the same.”