Scientist with autism challenges notion that ASD impairs individual’s ability to interpret body language.

Aberdeen, Scotland — A scientist with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) led a study that challenges the most common belief about autism— that the condition impairs an individual’s ability to interpret gestures and body language.

Dr. James Cusack, a scientist from the University of Aberdeen, was diagnosed with autism when he was 12 years old, and was told that he would need to be in a care home for the rest of his life to support his needs. But, thanks to Dyce Academy’s special autism unit, Dr Cusack received ‘targeted education’ that helped him overcome his condition and even excel in the academic field.

It was this very experience that drove Dr Cusack to conduct a study that he hopes would help everyone get a better understanding of the brain functions of individuals on the spectrum.

In a research conducted by Dr Cusack together with Dr Peter Neri and Dr Justin Williams, they found that the brain functions responsible for identifying human actions were in tact in individuals on the autism spectrum. This is contrary to common belief that individuals with autism could not properly identify human action sequences, which lead many to conclude that the impairment is responsible for the social challenges individuals on the spectrum commonly face.

The scientists came to this conclusion after conducting a study which involved a group of adolescents with autism from Aberdeen who were observed as they were tasked to identify human action sequences, which were reduced to dots using technology. According to Dr Cusack:

“Autism is generally associated with poor communication and social skills, which were thought possibly to stem from a difficulty with interpreting other people’s gestures and body language.

“There are several theories that rely on this notion, but most of these theories are based on very little data so we wanted to test this concept more thoroughly. . .

“When we take account of these other factors properly, the results showed only a slight impairment and this was more of a generalized deficit which might instead be attributed to factors such as the ability to pay attention, rather than autism specifically.”

Dr Neri said their findings prove that the challenge for individuals on the spectrum does not lie on their brain’s ability to identify action sequences, but rather on the ‘executive function’, where individuals are being told what to do in response to the action that the brain was able to recognize. He told:

“We had expected to see impairments of the sensory system – the first part of the brain that determines the action they see when shown the human motion simulations, for example confusion between similar actions such as dancing or fighting, as many previous studies have proposed.

“But what we found is that this region of the brain functions perfectly. . .

“We believe that autistic individuals may not be able to pay proper attention to the signals, but the signals themselves are intact.”

Dr Williams added:

“Many people with autism are disabled by sensory symptoms. It is important to know that the brain’s sensory systems are functioning well in autism. This suggests that we need to focus upon the way that the brain modulates the way that sensory input is experienced”.

The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Contributed by Althea Estrella Violeta

Source: Medical XPress website: Major study led by autistic scientist challenges long-held preconceptions about the condition