Friday, 18 July 2014

The relationship between autistic traits and social anxiety in the student population

Results of a research study conducted by Dr Megan Freeth, Dr Tom Bullock and Dr Elizabeth Milne University of Sheffield

Experiencing anxiety in social situations is common for individuals with a diagnosis on the autistic

spectrum. Autistic individuals can often be fearful of social situations or performance situations for a multitude of reasons, such as not knowing what may happen during the situation or they may worry about others’ expectations regarding how they should react. Individuals with autism often experience general heightened physiological arousal, such as a racing heart beat and other physical symptoms of anxiety in day to day life. Feeling generally anxious coupled with struggling with social skills can result in problematic levels of anxiety specifically when faced with social situations.

 Over the past ten to fifteen years there has been an emerging general consensus that rather than individuals with autism being very different from individuals in the “neurotypical” population, instead autism is now thought of as being on a continuum or spectrum. There are some individuals whose behaviour is very different to those with autism; these individuals may be described as being “low in autistic traits”. There are other individuals whose behaviour is much more similar to those with autism; these individuals may be described as being “high in autistic traits”. Then there are those who fall somewhere in the middle. In any case, there seems to be a sliding scale of amount of autistic traits that any given individual may possess.

In the current piece of research we aimed to investigate how widespread difficulties with social anxiety are in the student population and whether individuals who are high in autistic traits (but who did not necessarily have a diagnosis of autism) were more likely to struggle with social anxiety. 1325 students completed standardised questionnaires. These questionnaires assessed the amount of autistic traits an individual has and how much social anxiety they experience. We found that just over 3% of the students who completed the questionnaires were high in autistic traits and that of these students just under 2% experienced extremely high social anxiety. Students who reported having poor social skills, who found it difficult to quickly shift attention between multiple tasks and who had difficulty with aspects of communication particularly reported suffering from social anxiety. Having poor social skills was particularly anxiety provoking for male students; having difficulty shifting between multiple tasks was particularly anxiety provoking for female students. We suggest that these skills should be targeted by student support programmes. Certain methods of teaching at university, such as group seminars and tutorials, and some methods of assessment, such as oral presentations and group projects, used at university may be particularly difficult for individuals who suffer from social anxiety and/or display autistic traits. These individuals may particularly benefit from additional support.

For the full article, please click here or here.

Freeth, M., Bullock, T., & Milne, E. (2013). The distribution of and relationship between autistic traits and social anxiety in a UK student population. Autism, 17(5), 571-581.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Individuals with more autistic traits can see finer detail

Results of a research study conducted by Abby Dickinson, Dr Myles Jones and Dr Elizabeth Milne University of Sheffield

Sensory symptoms are now recognised as part of the assessment and diagnosis procedure for autism spectrum condition (ASC), as many people with ASC report being more or less sensitive to auditory, visual, or tactile information. Understanding how perception in ASC varies, and why this might be, provides greater insight into the condition and its cause. 

The current study focused on understanding vision, as ASC is associated with differences in vision, such as processing things in more detail. For example, someone who is processing something in more detail might be better able than most to tell whether a picture frame is straight or tilted. This is an example of orientation discrimination, which we can measure by finding the lowest amount of tilt a person needs to be able to tell the picture frame is straight or not. 

We carried out a study to see whether differences in orientation discrimination were present in individuals who don’t have a diagnosis of ASC, but have a high level of autistic traits. We can measure the level of autistic traits that someone has by getting them to answer a series of questions which ask about different social and communication preferences. Many people believe ASC to be a spectrum condition, with everybody showing a certain level of so-called ‘autistic traits’. If enhanced orientation discrimination is associated with the presence of autistic traits, we would expect to see differences in orientation discrimination between those with low and high levels of autistic traits.

We used a task in which participants had to tell whether black and white lines had been tilted clockwise or anti-clockwise. By varying how much we tilt the lines we can see the lowest angle of tilt a participant needs to be able to tell which way they have rotated. We found that people with a high amount of autistic traits are better at orientation discrimination. This means that individuals who have a high amount of autistic traits can tell if something is tilted when it has been moved much less than a person with a low amount of autistic traits. This suggests that individuals who have a higher amount of autistic traits may be processing visual stimuli in more detail.

We are now carrying out this study in individuals who have an ASC diagnosis, to see if the same enhancements in orientation discrimination are present. 

For the full article please click here.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Individuals with autism have “noisy” brains

Results of a research study conducted by Dr Elizabeth Milne, University of Sheffield

One of the goals of the Sheffield Autism Research Lab is to identify whether there are any differences in brain processes between individuals with autism and those who don’t have autism. If we are able to find clear differences, we hope that this will inform the diagnostic process in the future thus making diagnosis more reliable and also enabling earlier diagnoses to be made. One of the main ways we investigate this is by recording the electrical activity produced by the brain to discover whether there are any differences in the signal produced. The brain is extremely complex, containing approximately 100 billion neurons. Even small differences in how these neurons communicate can have profound effects on how individuals think and learn. To record electrical activity we use EEG equipment, which records brain activity up to 2,000 times each second. This means that even the smallest differences can be observed.

When we see something new, our brains start to process this information in a very regular, uniform way as we begin to identify what we are looking at. For example, within 0.2 seconds we start to process how bright or dark what we are looking at is. This initiation of processing generally happens with exactly the same strength of signal and with exactly the same timing if the same image is presented twice. However, a project, led by Dr Elizabeth Milne, found that something a bit different happens in the brains of people who have autism. Their signals aren’t quite as regular. Dr Milne found that when she compared the responses from one trial to the next, the point at which a signal started was more variable in those with autism compared to participants who didn’t have autism, and the strength of the signal was also more variable. These differences were observed in the visual cortex, at the back of the brain, the area which processes visual information. This variability is termed “neural noise” as there seems to be some interference influencing the regularity of signals. Experiencing these variable signals so early on in the visual processing system may have a knock-on effect on later processing. We don’t yet know what effect this finding of increased neural noise might have on behaviour but not having clear, regular signals is certainly likely to have an impact. It may make other aspects of information processing more challenging. Similar findings have also been observed by other groups using behavioural and fMRI techniques (Dr Hilde Geurts, University of Amsterdam; Prof Marlene Behrmann, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh) so this finding seems to be reliable. Following on from this work, we are now trying to understand how increased variability impacts on visual perception in those who have autism.

See the full article here

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Recently, quite a few people have told us that they'd like to hear more about the research we do. Rather than sending out academic journal articles or just sending information to a lucky few, we've decided to set up this blog to provide short research summaries of our projects.

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