A stereotypical view of people with autism might come from popular culture – think Rain Man or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime: mathematical savants who have abilities far beyond those of their peers.
However, new research from the UCL Institute of Education, The University of Florence and the Fondazione Stella Maris in Pisa has shown that autistic children actually find it more difficult to adapt to incoming sensory information when it comes to numbers.
The study, which was conducted both on children who have an autistic spectrum disorder and those who do not, was based on an exercise where respondents had to look at patches of dots to determine which patch had the most dots in it.
The academics found that children with autism showed very little ability to adapt to the number of dots they were being shown compared with typical children.
Dr Liz Pellicano, director of IOE’s Centre for Research in Autism and Education, said that the research demonstrated how children with autism saw the world differently.
“The differences shown in our research can have advantages but they can also have debilitating consequences," she explained. "Our research showed that children with autism have difficulties adjusting flexibly to incoming sensory information, in this case number, and that these difficulties might explain why the world can ‘overload’ and cause distress for a child.”
Children with autism might also have a reduced capacity for predicting new sensations, said fellow researcher Professor David Burr, of the University of Florence. “Failure to predict the sensory world means that each new sensation is a surprise and the continuous sequences of surprises can be completely overwhelming,” he said.
The paper concludes by suggesting that a better understanding of how autistic children see the world is crucial in order to design and improve diagnostic and therapeutic tools to aid their learning.