Teen in ParkFor people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the world may be “magical.” A new hypothesis from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggests that people with autism symptoms have an impaired ability to make predictions. Rather than anticipating how something feels, what might happen, or what an individual may do, people with ASD might see most outcomes as a surprise. In the absence of rules to govern their environment, people with autism may see the world as operating at random.

The MIT research team first began considering prediction skills as a prime factor in ASD after hearing many parent reports that their children with ASD insisted on order and predictability. They eventually hypothesized that children with ASD may not have the same ability to compute probabilities as typically developing children.

This hypothesis may explain many common ASD symptoms, like adherence to routines and repetitive behaviors. Routines could be a coping mechanism for a world that apparently has no inherent structure. Problems with sensory stimuli, another hallmark of ASD, could also result from impaired prediction abilities. While neurotypical people can anticipate how something feels and habituate themselves to the sensation, people with ASD may not be able to do so. This theory could also explain why people with ASD have trouble with theory of mind, the inability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others.

Other studies demonstrate that imposing rigid structure can diminish an individual’s anxiety, even in people without autism. People with ASD who create their own rules may be carrying out their own, personal therapy.

The researchers believe this hypothesis could unify the various symptoms and levels of severity seen in the autism spectrum. Although autism manifests in many ways, impaired predictive abilities could be at the root of multiple symptoms depending on the timing of predictive problems. For example, a milliseconds-long delay could impact language use, while a seconds-long delay might affect social functions.

The researchers suggest that autism interventions could be improved by incorporating their hypothesis. “At the moment, the treatments that have been developed are driven by the end symptoms. We’re suggesting that the deeper problem is a predictive impairment problem, so we should directly address that ability … [the hypothesis argues] for the target of a therapy being predictive skills rather than other manifestations of autism,” stated lead author Pawan Sinha, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT.

This research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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