4/05/2013

Practical questions cognitive psychologists can ask about autism

Increasingly often on blogs and twitter, I've seen autistic people and their parents argue that too much funding is going to basic autism research, and that more of the money should go towards services.  In general, I agree--knowing the genetic and environmental causes of autism will not do much to help already-autistic people live independently, find jobs, develop relationships, manage sensory sensitivities and emotional extremes, and otherwise lead more fulfilling lives.  However, I occasionally sense a troubling tendency to reject any research that doesn't specifically develop or test services.  As someone who wants to understand how autistic people think and perceive, this bothers me.  My research field, cognitive psychology--the study of how people think and perceive--has implications for education and other services, but does not itself develop or test service programs.  Rather than reject this area of research, I'd like to ask how cognitive psychology research can ask more useful questions.

Here are just a few lines of research with practical implications.  At least some of these have been studied to some extent.

* In what sorts of ways do autistic people learn most effectively?  (There are probably multiple ways given the diversity of intellectual abilities, talent areas, and other traits of people on the spectrum).  Practical significance:  How can parents, teachers, and bosses support this learning so they can build on their strengths and compensate for weaknesses?  When autistic people grow up, how can they most effectively teach themselves?

* What function do obsessive interests in specific topics have?  How does a person organize their knowledge about their topic of special interest?  A lot of "experts" state, without citing evidence, that autistic people just know a bunch of disorganized facts and don't arrange them into some sort of conceptual structure.  But that not only makes no sense, it doesn't fit with my observations of how autistic people think and talk about their special interests.  Maybe autistic people just don't know how to communicate about their special interests in a way that seems organized and interesting to neurotypical people.  What if you allowed autistic people to talk about their interests in an open-ended way, had neurotypical experts on the same topic do the same, made concept maps of what they say, and compared how each structure their knowledge?  (There's a huge literature on how neurotypical experts think; why not make use of it?).

* Cognitive psychology excels at developing ways to measure the thought processes of people unable to put them into words.  For example, we measure looking time, eye movement patterns, and certain measures of brain activity to understand how babies and young children think.  Why not put these methods to good use to measure the understanding of autistic people with low verbal ability?

* Can one predict based on a baby or toddler's early sensory and motor characteristics what their pattern of strengths and weaknesses will be when they're older?  (For example, whether a child will end up having difficulties with reading, speaking, math, spatial processing, attention, or social interaction, all of which have been associated with sensory and motor characteristics but not necessarily the same ones).

* How do sensory hyper and hyposensitivities work?  Are there ways a person can "desensitize" themselves to some degree if they so wish?  Are there ways to train one's brain to process sensory stimuli more effectively

* Why do autistic people have such good memories?  How can they use this strength to develop their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses?

* Given how observant, honest, and reality-oriented autistic people often are, why do so many have difficulty learning self-care and practical life skills?  What makes these skills hard to learn and how can they be learned more easily?

* Why do autistic people interpret language "literally?"  What inferences are they not making?  Are there alternative ways they can learn to make these inferences?

* What, specifically, makes it hard for autistic people to understand the reasons for other people's behavior?  What does this suggest about how to compensate?

* What, specifically, makes it hard for autistic people to project body language and facial expressions that conventionally express how they actually feel?  I.e., why do they project signals that normally indicate very different mental states, leading people to misunderstand them?  What does this suggest about how to compensate?

* Neurotypical kids' social development is fostered by feedback from their parents, who mirror their behavior and thus model reciprocal interactions from an early age.  As Morton Ann Gernsbacher and her colleagues pointed out, autistic babies don't give the usual cues their parents are expecting, and the parents don't necessarily mirror them or give them the social feedback that helps neurotypical babies.  So how much of an autistic person's social disabilities come from their own characteristics, and how much from early differences in their interactions with caretakers?  Is there any difference from non-autistic babies whose parents don't give them the usual cues for some reason?  If parents were to mirror autistic babies' (unusual) cues, would this help autistic babies' social development?

What role do you see cognitive psychology and neuroscience playing in a world increasingly concerned with redressing the imbalance between basic research and services?  What kind of research would you like to see?