Greater capacity to detect sound gives autistic people an advantage

People on the autistic spectrum can take in more sounds at any given moment compared to non-autistic people, according to new research from UCL.

Researchers from the Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE) at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) used two behavioural experiments to examine whether an increased capacity for processing sounds in autism could underlie both difficulties and enhanced auditory abilities that are found in the condition.

The study, published today in Cognition, found autistic people are better at detecting a target sound that is hidden amongst other sounds, and notice irrelevant background information more often when listening to a conversation.

This might explain why some tasks are easier for autistic people (e.g. picking out a melody from a piece of music) but others tasks are more difficult (e.g. staying focused on the teacher during a school lesson). It also suggests that autistic people have an increased capacity to take in sounds, relative to non-autistic people, rather than an inability to filter out irrelevant sounds.

“This increased capacity may offer an explanation for the auditory superiorities seen in autism such as heightened pitch detection: if you can take in more information, then you can perform many tasks more efficiently. However, somewhat counterintuitively, this same ‘skill’ could result in the sensory overload that is often reported in autism – an issue which can be very distressing, and subsequently interfere with social communication,” explained lead author Dr Anna Remington (UCL Institute of Education).

“Understanding 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.”

The researchers suggest that to reduce unwanted distraction, autistic people need to fill their extra capacity with information that will be beneficial, rather than interfere with the task at hand. For example, it might be helpful to listen to music while reading. The findings challenge the common view that tasks and stimuli should be simplified for autistic children in schools, 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 the idea that we can harness strengths to improve outcomes, we embrace neurodiversity and undermine the traditional view that autism is only associated with deficits. This is an important message that is currently being championed by many in the autistic community,” added Dr Remington.

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