A sound advantageTo test out this idea, we asked a group of autistic and non-autistic adults to carry out two computer-based tasks. The first was a listening-search task where having greater perceptual capacity would be useful and help you perform well. Participants were asked to listen to short bursts of animal sounds, played simultaneously, and figure out whether there was a dog’s bark or a lion’s roar in the group. At the same time, they also had to listen for the sound of a car, which was there in half the trials. The autistic adults were much better than the non-autistic adults at picking out the car sound at the same time as doing the animal task correctly. The second task involved listening to a recording of a group of people preparing for a party and focusing on the women’s conversation to be able to answer questions about it at the end. In this case, the task was easy and having extra capacity might leave you at risk of being more easily distracted by information that isn’t needed for the task. To see if that was the case, an unexpected and unusual addition was made to the middle of the scene: a man walked in saying, “I’m a gorilla,” over and over again. As predicted, many more of the autistic participants (47%) noticed the “gorilla man”, compared with 12% of the non-autistic group. So it seems that increased capacity for processing sounds in autism could be linked to both difficulties and enhanced auditory abilities that are found in the condition.
Changing perceptionsUnderstanding that differences in autistic attention might be due to this extra capacity, rather than an inability to filter out irrelevant information, can change the way we understand the condition and how we might intervene to help those who are struggling. Our findings suggest that to reduce unwanted distraction, autistic people need to fill their extra capacity with information that won’t interfere with the task at hand. For example, it might be helpful to listen to music while reading. This challenges the common approach taken to simplify the classroom environment for autistic children, although care should still be taken to avoid a sensory overload. While we must not downplay the challenges associated with autism, our study raises awareness of a more positive side to the condition. By promoting evidence of autistic strengths, we embrace diversity and undermine the traditional view that autism is only associated with deficits.
Anna Remington receives funding from The Experimental Psychology Society, Baily Thomas Charitable Fund and British Academy.