Thursday, 27 October 2016

Characteristics of Autism in Sotos Syndrome


Research Summary


Sotos syndrome is a congenital overgrowth disorder with an incidence of approximately 1 in 14,000. The syndrome is associated with intellectual disability. Our recent review of research focusing on cognition and behaviour in Sotos syndrome identified several behavioural issues that may be common in individuals with Sotos syndrome. These were aggression and/or tantrums, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety. Previous research has identified that there may be an association between Sotos syndrome and ASD but the majority of studies have explored this relationship using small groups of individuals with Sotos syndrome. The aim of our research was to investigate this relationship in a large group of individuals with Sotos syndrome.

ASD is a developmental disorder which is characterised by social communication impairment and restricted interests and repetitive behaviours. Many syndromes have been identified as having an association with ASD (e.g. Fragile X syndrome, Cornelia de Lange syndrome and Angelman syndrome). In order to better understand behaviour in Sotos syndrome, we investigated whether individuals with Sotos syndrome experience difficulties with social skills, restricted interests and repetitive behaviours. These are behavioural issues that are typically observed in individuals with ASD.

Our research involved 78 individuals with a diagnosis of Sotos syndrome. Families were invited to take part in the research via the Child Growth Foundation (CGF; a UK charity that supports families of individuals affected by growth disorders) and advertisements on Sotos syndrome support groups on social media. Behaviour was assessed using a questionnaire which was completed by a family member of the individual with Sotos syndrome - The Social Responsiveness Scale, second edition (SRS-2). This questionnaire has 65 questions which relate to social skills, restricted interests and repetitive behaviours.

 A key finding from the research was that 65 of the participants (83.33%) were rated by their family member as experiencing difficulty with behaviours related to social skills, restricted interests and repetitive behaviours. This suggests that the majority of individuals with Sotos syndrome experience difficulty with behaviours that are associated with ASD. There was no difference in scores between males and females with Sotos syndrome which indicates that gender does not affect the presence of these behaviours in individuals with Sotos syndrome.

 As we had individuals with a wide age range in our research (2.5 – 50 years), we decided to see if age affected behavioural issues in Sotos syndrome. We split our participants into five age categories and compared the average score for the individuals in each category. We found a significant difference in scores between the categories, with more prominent behavioural issues reported in childhood (5 – 19 years), compared with early childhood (2.5 – 5 years) and adulthood (20 years and older). This suggests that behavioural issues in Sotos syndrome may improve with time, as an individual transitions into adulthood.

The findings from this research suggest that the majority of individuals with Sotos syndrome experience difficulty with social skills, restricted interests and repetitive behaviours. These behavioural issues are typically associated with ASD and it therefore seems that there is a significant relationship between Sotos syndrome and ASD.

For the full paper, please see:

Lane, C., Milne, E. & Freeth, M.(2016). Characteristics of ASD in Sotos syndrome. Journal of autism anddevelopmental disorders. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-016-2941-z


Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Students’ Stereotypes of Autism (Wood & Freeth, 2016): Summary of our new Open Access paper

Substantial gains have been made over the past few decades in improving understanding of autism. Most people are now aware of the existence of autism[1] and a range of high profile media campaigns are generally helping to improve public understanding of autism[2]. However, in the media particularly striking autistic individuals, for example those with savant skills or with particularly challenging behaviour, tend to be over represented[3][4]

We realised that before designing research interventions aimed to improve public perceptions of autism, we needed to know what the stereotype of autism is and whether any character traits that people associate with autism are seen as being particularly negative. Stereotypes are short-cuts or sets of traits and characteristics that society ascribes to a particular social group. When people don’t have direct experience of members of a particular social group, they often rely on stereotypes to guide judgements towards members of that social group[5]

So what is the “autistic stereotype”?

We focussed our recently published research on finding out what the stereotype of autism is among university students, and in particular those students who did not have direct experience of autism (weren’t themselves autistic and did not have a family member or close friend who was autistic) as these are the people who would most likely use stereotypes to guide their judgements. 163 students who had lived in the UK for at least 5 years completed our survey. The students were asked to report the beliefs that they felt society as a whole holds of individuals with Autism Spectrum Conditions. We asked the question this way as it has previously been shown that this is an effective way to accurately elicit stereotypes and reduce the likelihood that people will answer in line with what they believe a socially desirable answer to be[6]

We found that the stereotype was that autistic people have poor social skills, are introverted and withdrawn, are poor communicators, and have difficult personality traits or behaviours. It was notable that many of the positive skills and traits often expressed by autistic people, such as good attention to detail, honesty, good rote memory, enhanced perception, were absent from the stereotype. Only two of the top 10 stereotypic traits that emerged were rated as positive. These were “high intelligence” and “special abilities”. We hope that this research can be a starting point for improving perceptions of autism, forming the basis for interventions designed to reduce reliance on stereotypes of autistic people. We are now looking for ways to improve public perceptions of autism via research interventions to be conducted on people who are not autistic, and by asking autistic adults to discuss how they feel they are perceived by others in society. We need to break down the barriers that autistic people face on a daily basis and change societal attitudes so that neurodiversity is more effectively embraced!

For the full article see: Wood, C. & Freeth, M., (2016) Students’ Stereotypes of Autism. Journal of Educational Issues, 2 (2), 131-140.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Reduced Visual Exploration in Autism

Blog post by Dr Megan Freeth

The world around us is an extremely complex and often confusing place. There is so much detail in the visual environment that we could attend to, we can never actually see and process everything. There will always be small details that we miss, or, if we spend a lot of time focussing on the small details, we may even miss something really large and potentially very important for figuring out what is going on.

How we tend to explore our visual environments has a big impact on what we understand about that environment. In our latest piece of research, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, we found that adolescents who have autism tend to visually explore their environments in a fundamentally different way to those who don’t. We created five new mathematical models for analysing eye-tracking data. By analysing our eye-tracking data using these newly created models we found that when people viewed a series of photographs, autistic viewers tend to consistently explore less of the scene overall than neurotypical viewers. Whereas when neurotypical adolescents viewed briefly presented scenes, throughout the first five seconds they continuously explored new areas, those with autism tended to slow down their exploration of new areas after about 2.5 seconds. Perhaps as time went by some of those with autism felt they had seen enough of the scenes already or perhaps something captured their interest so they tended to look at certain things in a bit more detail. We also found that those with autism were more likely to explore areas close to where they were already looking compared to neurotypical individuals who tended to look at areas that were further away. We checked whether this had any impact on how scenes were described and we found that those with autism were significantly more likely to miss large areas from their scene descriptions than those without autism.

From this new research we don’t know whether one strategy is “better” than another, we just know that there are fundamental differences in how the world is viewed by those with and without autism. Perhaps it is not surprising that those with autism have a different understanding and interpretation of the world compared to those who don’t, as it seems the parts of the world that are actually seen are different in the first place so the brain of an autistic person will have a strikingly different input to someone that doesn’t have autism. We would argue that this all contributes to creating a rich, neurodiverse world and it is likely a good thing for society that different people see and interpret the world in different ways. It also must be a good thing that different people are interested in different things as this will lead to finding alternative solutions to problems rather than us all looking at things in exactly the same way.

Free version of Heaton, T. & Freeth, M. (in press) Reduced Visual Exploration When Viewing Photographic Scenes in Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology: doi:10.1037/abn0000145