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Project examining autistic people’s superior perceptual capacity awarded funding

11 March 2020

A project examining autistic people’s cognitive strengths and how these can be used to promote learning has received funding.

Primary school children sat together looking at laptop screen

The UCL Institute of Education (IOE) project, led by Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE) Director Dr Anna Remington, has been awarded over £800,000 by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). This covers a significant proportion of the nearly-£1 million project.

The project will involve autistic and non-autistic researchers working together to ensure the findings have a meaningful impact on the lives of autistic people and their families.

It focuses on the ability of autistic people to take in more information at any one time compared to non-autistic individuals. This is also referred to as perceptual capacity. This can give both practical advantages, such as enhanced information processing, and disadvantages, such as susceptibility to distraction, depending on the specific situation.

Dr Remington’s research will establish whether everyone across the entire autism spectrum, beyond those who are cognitively and verbally able, have increased perceptual capacity. This will involve developing research tasks that are accessible to those who have intellectual impairment, a population that is often excluded from research. The research will also explore whether this perceptual superiority is unique to autism or is seen in other conditions.

The project aims to inform a new theoretical approach to autism and lead to a change in best practice for intervention. Currently, many support strategies involve simplifying learning tasks or environments to help reduce distraction. However, if distraction arises due to increased perceptual capacity, Dr Remington argues that modification strategies should seek to fill excess capacity rather than reduce the available information.

The findings from the research will be used to develop learning tools to help autistic individuals harness the potential benefits while minimising the more challenging aspects associated with increased capacity. The tools will be relevant to education and employment in particular.

Jana Brinkert (UCL Institute of Education), Professor Emily Farran (Surrey), Professor Elizabeth Milne (Sheffield) and Professor Gaia Scerif (Oxford) will join Dr Anna Remington on the research team.

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