Adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) do not integrate sensory information like adults without the disorder do, finds a new study from Curtin University in Perth, Australia. The findings of the study indicate that there is an unusual disconnect between vision and control of posture in people with ASD. This disconnect impacts motor skills and, possibly, social skills for people on the autism spectrum.
The researchers evaluated 12 adults with ASD, and 20 adults without ASD who served as the control group. For the experiment, each participant stood on a plate, which tracked his center of gravity, with a vibrating device strapped to his neck. When the device buzzed, it activated the neck’s muscle receptors, creating the illusion that the participant’s head was tilting backwards. The participants wore glasses with liquid crystal lenses, which can change from transparent to opaque, during the experiment. The researchers investigated participants’ ability to integrate visual and motor information by activating the vibrating device while the lenses were transparent and then while they were opaque.
When the lenses were opaque and participants could not see, the participants leaned forward in response to vibrations on their neck. When the lenses were transparent, the participants with ASD still leaned forward, but the control group did not. This suggests that most people can use their sense of sight to compensate for false senses of movement, but that people with ASD rely on what they feel more than on what they see.
The study offers “… clear evidence to suggest that individuals with autism do indeed appear to tend to discount visual information during processes involving motor control and learning,” explains Stewart Mostofsky, who was not involved with the study, director of the Laboratory for Neurocognitive and Imaging Research at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.
The findings indicate that adults with ASD do not integrate visual input into their motor processes, which can lead to deficits in both motor and social abilities. The results also corroborate work from Mostofsky, which found that people with ASD rely heavily on proprioception—the sense of where the body is—when learning new motor tasks.
This research is published in the journal Neuroscience.
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