Learning Body LanguageA researcher with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at the University of Aberdeen is incorporating his life experience into studies about the perceptual abilities of people with ASD. People with ASD are known to struggle with communication skills, especially when it comes to interpreting gestures and body language. New findings indicate that the challenge of understanding body language for people with ASD is not a sensory problem. The researchers suggest that executive function may be to blame. The results can help researchers better understand and treat ASD.

The study was conducted over a four-year period with adolescents from Aberdeen who were diagnosed with ASD. The researchers wanted to determine if people with ASD could distinguish between similar types of movements. To test this, the researchers showed the participants depictions of physical activities, minimally rendered using a series of dots. The participants had to determine whether the images depicted, for example, dancing or fighting.

The participants were able to distinguish between physical activities much more successfully than previous research suggested was possible for individuals with ASD. The researchers expected to find sensory impairments limiting the participants’ abilities to interpret movement. Instead, problems arose in other parts of the cognitive process, most likely related to attention and executive function.

Lead researcher Dr. James Cusack explains that the research grew out of his own experience. Diagnosed with ASD at age 12, the young Dr. Cusack was told that he might need residential care for the rest of his life. He has since earned a doctorate in biomedical sciences and become a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen.

Dr. Cusack explains that many people theorize that communication difficulties in ASD are related to problems interpreting the body language others. According to Dr. Cusack, “most of these theories are based on very little data so we wanted to test this concept more thoroughly. My own diagnosis experienced aided the design of powerful tests that could more accurately control for factors not directly linked to autism … when we take account of these other factors properly, the results showed only a slight impairment.”

This research is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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