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Information processing, intelligence and social learning in autism spectrum disorder

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a life-long developmental disorder, which affects communication, social interaction, and flexible behaviour. Kanner’s and Asperger’s original descriptions suggested a hidden intelligence in Autism, reflected in islets of ability. However, for more than three decades it has been documented that ASD has a strong association with Intellectual Disability (ID) and low measured IQ: a high percentage of cases of ASD have intellectual disability, and risk of ASD increases with reduced IQ.
The current study aimed to investigate the underlying cognitive potential in ASD, using a simple measure of processing efficiency. The thesis reports studies testing the notion that learning and acquisition of skills is hampered by poor social insight in ASD, which curtails ordinary social learning mechanisms. This general framework further predicts that the basic processing mechanism is not impaired in ASD, and that learning will proceed more efficiently through non-social than through social routes. The Inspection Time (IT) task was used to assess processing efficiency and speed of processing, free of social demands. ITs were predicted to be significantly better than expected from standard IQ in children with ASD and ID, but not in those with ID alone. A novel photograph version of a well-known receptive vocabulary test was developed, predicting that this less socio-communicative version would specifically aid children with ASD, compared to the traditional line drawing format (which may be more determined by the author’s own interpretation and/or drawing ability). Finally, learning in novel social and non-social odd-one-out tasks was tested in children with ID with and without ASD. Learning performance was examined in relation to performance on standard IQ tests, IT, Theory of Mind, and report of everyday life skills and deficits. Results showed that ASD individuals outperformed ID individuals in the IT task despite matched IQ. However, IT did not predict better non-social learning than IQ did. Implications of these results and future directions are further discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award dateMay 2012

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