Major study led by autistic scientist challenges long-held preconceptions about the condition

February 20, 2015, University of Aberdeen
Dr James Cusack

A scientist with autism has used his own experiences to aid the completion of a study which challenges some of the most commonly-held beliefs about the condition.

Dr James Cusack, from the University of Aberdeen, argues that generalisations about people with being poorer at interpreting gestures and may be exaggerated, and could be overcome by developing their ability to pay attention to signals in their which may otherwise go unnoticed.

The findings, published in the prestigious Journal of Neuroscience, are the result of a four-year study conducted with a group of adolescents with autism from Aberdeen, and it is hoped the results could bring scientists closer to understanding the condition and unlock the potential of others with the disability.

Those taking part in the study were shown a series of human action sequences, created using technology which reduces figures to a series of dots, and then asked to distinguish between similar actions such as dancing and fighting – something which it is commonly believed those with autism have greater difficulty in determining.

The results showed that their ability to detect these subtle differences was significantly higher than that identified by previous research.

The findings parallel developments within Dr Cusack's own life by demonstrating that the impairment in those with autism could potentially be overcome if they could be directed to interpret what they see more effectively.

Dr Cusack was told at the age of 12 that he may need residential care for the rest of his life to support his individual needs. Instead, thanks to the targeted education he received at the specialist autism unit within Dyce Academy, Aberdeen, he went on to excel first at school and then at university, gaining a doctorate in biomedical sciences and becoming a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen.

Dr Cusack said: "Autism is generally associated with poor communication and social skills, which were thought possibly to stem from a difficulty with interpreting other people's gestures and body language.

"There are several theories that rely on this notion, but most of these theories are based on very little data so we wanted to test this concept more thoroughly. My own diagnosis and experiences aided the design of powerful tests that could more accurately control for factors not directly linked to autism - such as ensuring test requirements were fully understood and that experiments were conducted in an appropriate environment.

"When we take account of these other factors properly, the results showed only a slight impairment and this was more of a generalised deficit which might instead be attributed to factors such as the ability to pay attention, rather than autism specifically."

Dr Cusack's doctoral project was jointly supervised by Dr Peter Neri, a leading visual scientist from the University of Aberdeen, and Dr Justin Williams, a psychiatrist who pioneered influential theories of autism, also based at the University. The researchers were supported by the Medical Research Council and the Royal Society.

Dr Neri said that the results of these experiments clearly demonstrate that problems with the perception of action by those with autism occur not at the stage of identifying movement, but in interpreting it effectively.

He added: "We had expected to see impairments of the sensory system – the first part of the brain that determines the action they see when shown the human motion simulations, for example confusion between similar actions such as dancing or fighting, as many previous studies have proposed.

"But what we found is that this region of the brain functions perfectly. Instead, difficulties seem to arise at a later stage of cognition in a different brain system, which informs what we should do in response to an action, often termed the 'executive function'.

"Although we do not know exactly what happens here, by identifying that this is where the impairment occurs is extremely significant.

"The sensory parts of the brain are extremely complex and largely resistant to modification after the first few years of early life, so that any impairment here would be very difficult to counter. It is well known, however, that the executive functions of the brain can be can be 'trained' to make use of these sensory inputs more effectively, for example in the way that an artist would see colours.

"We believe that autistic individuals may not be able to pay proper attention to the signals, but the signals themselves are intact."

Dr Justin Williams further explained: "Many people with autism are disabled by sensory symptoms. It is important to know that the brain's sensory systems are functioning well in autism. This suggests that we need to focus upon the way that the brain modulates the way that sensory input is experienced".

Dr Cusack said the findings were of great significance as they demonstrate that deficiencies in perception for those with autism may not be as widespread as previously thought – and opens up new possibilities to help people manage the condition.

"I know from personal experience the benefit that a greater understanding of autism can bring," he added.

"When I began secondary school it was expected that I would need to be fully supported for the rest of my life, but I was given a place at a specialist 'base' within a mainstream school and it completely transformed my educational experience.

"I went from an expectation that I would not sit any exams to achieving straight ones in my Standard Grades, and then gaining Highers which enabled me to attend the University of Aberdeen where I obtained a psychology degree.

"I then completed my degree and PhD, met my wife who is training to be a GP, and have a baby daughter. I couldn't have imagined I'd achieve any of this when given my diagnosis aged 12.

"I hope our findings bring us closer to understanding autism, and that treatments can be more appropriately targeted now that we have a greater understanding of the brain systems affected in action perception, which plays a key role in social development.

"I will now be taking these findings forward as more research is needed to fully understand exactly where the deficit lies at the level of executive function, which brain circuits are affected, and what interventions can be taken in order to restore function within those circuits. My goal is to identify the precise nature of the deficits associated with autism, and devise effective ways of counteracting them.

"Aberdeen is in many ways an ideal place for pursuing this goal, thanks to the world-class expertise available at the University and the invaluable help of schools such as Dyce Academy and the many participants who volunteered several hours of their time and efforts towards my experiments. I thank them all.

Christine Swabey, Chief Executive of leading UK Autism research charity Autistica said: "Having a study led by an individual on the spectrum is an extremely valuable approach, especially as it challenges much of what we have previously believed about social communication and autism.

"Autistica works to bridge the gap between researchers and what individuals and families with autism believe will make the most difference. This study highlights the need for more research into the condition to help develop evidence based interventions to aid individuals on the spectrum to lead fulfilling lives."

Explore further: Illusion aids understanding of autism

More information: The full academic paper is available to view online here: …

Related Stories

Illusion aids understanding of autism

February 2, 2015
New research could lead to a better understanding of how the brain works in people with autism.

'Play' may be more stressful for kids with autism: study

February 13, 2015
(HealthDay)—Children with autism appear to approach play differently than typically developing children, a recent study contends.

Autism in children affects not only social abilities, but also broad range of sensory and motor skills

June 25, 2013
A group of investigators from San Diego State University's Brain Development Imaging Laboratory are shedding a new light on the effects of autism on the brain.

Team sheds light on genetic mutations in autism disorders

January 20, 2015
Recent research has linked autism with a lack of "pruning" in developing brain connections, but a new Dartmouth study suggests instead it is the excessive growth of new connections that causes sensory overload in people with ...

Autism affects different parts of the brain in women and men

August 8, 2013
Autism affects different parts of the brain in females with autism than males with autism, a new study reveals. The research is published today in the journal Brain as an open-access article.

Gene family mutation, autism linked

January 28, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Harvard Medical School researchers at McLean Hospital have found that a gene family linked to autism, EphB, is essential for proper brain wiring during development. The findings suggest that the abnormal ...

Recommended for you

Autism linked to egg cells' difficulty creating large proteins

August 16, 2018
New work from Carnegie's Ethan Greenblatt and Allan Spradling reveals that the genetic factors underlying fragile X syndrome, and potentially other autism-related disorders, stem from defects in the cell's ability to create ...

First biomarker evidence of DDT-autism link

August 16, 2018
A study of more than 1 million pregnancies in Finland reports that elevated levels of a metabolite of the banned insecticide DDT in the blood of pregnant women are linked to increased risk for autism in the offspring. An ...

Discovery of a key protein involved in the development of autism

August 16, 2018
Most individuals with autism spectrum disorder cannot be distinguished by physical traits or by severe neurological symptoms. In fact, these cases can be identified only on the basis of certain behaviours, namely their obsessive ...

People with autism may not have trouble focusing on people in photos

August 16, 2018
While people with autism may avoid eye contact in one-on-one conversations, they may not avoid looking at people in photos, according to Penn State researchers.

Mizzou program significantly reduces delay in autism diagnosis

August 15, 2018
When Katie New first suspected her son had autism, she had to wait 18 months for a diagnosis. She also had to travel nearly 100 miles from her hometown of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, to see an autism specialist in Cape Girardeau. ...

Ouija board study highlights ineffective treatment for autism

August 7, 2018
A new study into Ouija board practices revealed how the planchette (or a glass, as is often used) seemingly moves without any of the individual players being aware that they are doing it.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Feb 20, 2015
not rated yet Feb 22, 2015
It seems this "problem" is the inability of "normal" people to realize that they need to vocalize things instead on relying on non-verbal cues...why blame the autistic for failing to recognized vague body language (which is the lower form of communication vs verbal)?

I was considered autistic by people simply for not caring to watch body language...I knew what it likely meant but have little tolerance for people who cannot say what they want. Most body language is communicating information that the individual is to consciously weak about to address or is attempting to conceal information in a group.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.