People with ASD struggle with changeSeveral theories attempt to explain the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A new study adds experimental evidence to two of these: ‘intense world theory’ and ‘disorder of prediction theory’. Intense world theory suggests that people with ASD struggle to handle competing stimuli, so they focus on details. Disorder of prediction theory posits that people with ASD have trouble making predictions about routine activities.

The study found that people with ASD are more easily overwhelmed by rapidly changing circumstances. This is especially true when people with ASD must use social cues to interpret a new situation. The findings give credence to the intense world theory and the disorder of prediction theory.

Fourteen adults with ASD and 15 neurotypical adults participated in the study. The researchers measured the participants’ autism symptoms with the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ). Then, the participants did a task in which were asked to select the “winning” box from two boxes on a screen. For the first 60 turns, one of the boxes was a winner 75 percent of the time, but in subsequent 60-turn intervals, the ratio of how often either box was the winner shifted. For two of the intervals, the task offered clues to help the participants quickly determine the likely winner. One clue showed an arrow pointing to the winning box. The other clue depicted a man looking at the winning box.

The results demonstrated that individuals with autism struggle with unpredictability more than neurotypical individuals. The participants with ASD were challenged by changing, unpredictable hints. They struggled most with hints that required social knowledge, like the image of the man looking at the winning box.

The researchers noted a positive correlation between stronger autism symptoms and more difficulties with unpredictability.

The study corroborates previous research suggesting that people with ASD struggle with change. The study is too small to unequivocally prove either the intense world or disorder of prediction theory of autism, but the findings may lead to productive research in the field.

This research is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

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