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Visual Skills Hard To Come By For Autistic Children

December 21, 2010

A study published Monday has found that autistic children have difficulty finding things such as personal belongings or specific foods at the supermarket, impairing their ability to lead normal lives.

Researchers at the University of Bristol in England said by testing a child’s ability to carry out real-life tasks they had challenged previous findings that autistic children have enhanced visual searching skills.

“This new research indicates that children with autism are unable to search effectively for objects in real-life situations — a skill that is essential for achieving independence in adulthood,” the researchers said in a statement to AFP.

The team of researchers told 40 children, half of whom were autistic, to search for targets in a test room that mirrored daily life, saying the experiment was better than previous tests using computers or table-top tasks.

“Critically, these targets appeared more on one side of the room than the other,” the team said, which allowed them to test previous findings that autistic children are quicker to pick up on patterns in a system.

“A contemporary theory of autism (systematizing) states that these children are more sensitive to regularities within a system, (for example, prime numbers, computer programs and train timetables),” they noted.

“Surprisingly, more ‘systematic’ behavior was not observed in this test; children with autism were less efficient and more chaotic in their search.”

The study’s findings could help explain why autistic children are often unable to complete simple searching tasks, they said.

The results strongly suggest that autistic children’s ability to search in a large-scale environment is less efficient and less systematic than typical children’s search. This has important implications for how well children with autism can cope independently in the real world if they struggle to navigate and search within a local environment and identify patterns within it.

“The ability to work effectively and systematically in these kind of tasks mirrors everyday behaviors that allow us to function as independent adults,” Josie Briscoe, one of the report authors, told AFP.

“This research offers an exciting opportunity to explore underlying skills that could help people with autism achieve independence,” she said.

Professor Iain Gilchrist, another of the report’s authors, said: “This research was only possible because of the unique research facility we have in Bristol and the support we have received from the MRC, BBSRC and ESRC who funded the basic science that underpins these new findings.”

An estimated 1.5 million Americans suffer from autism, a disability that affects communication skills and the ability to interact with others, and the disorder typically appears in the first three years of life.

The study will be published in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in the December 21-25 issue. 

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