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New research shows that children with autism are better at combining information about moving objects than their peers, which may explain why they experience sensory overload

The study conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford and the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) asked 33 children with autism and 33 typical children aged between 6 and 13 years to judge the average direction of a set of dots on a computer screen.

Children with autism were better at working out the overall direction of dots when they moved in different directions. However, they did not show the same enhancement when they had to ignore dots moving in random directions. These results suggest that children with autism can combine dynamic information well but may not always know what information to combine and what information to ignore.

“The ability to combine motion information helps us make sense of what we see, for example by allowing us to see the overall movement of a shoal of fish”, says researcher Dr Catherine Manning from the University of Oxford. “However, it is also important to know what information needs to be filtered out.  An increased combination of motion information may in some way ‘overload’ a child with autism in a dynamic world.”

Dr Liz Pellicano, Director of the IOE’s Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE) said: “We know that autistic people see the world differently compared with non-autistic people. But exactly why these differences occur have so far been unclear. Our new research suggests that children with autism excel at integrating moving information – a skill that might be beneficial in some circumstances but, in others, might lead to the processing of too much unfiltered information, which could also lead to distress.”

Autism is a developmental condition that affects approximately one in 70 children and is best known for its effects on social interaction.  Individuals with autism also perceive and experience the world differently. These sensory processing differences have been demonstrated to impact on many aspects of day-to-day life, including academic achievement, social functioning and family life.  Understanding sensory differences, such as how children with autism see the world, is an important part of better understanding autism and developing interventions.

‘Enhanced integration of motion information in children with autism’ is published in the Journal of Neuroscience on 6 May 2015.

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