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An eye for detail - do individuals with autism see things differently?

An interview with Dr Paul A Constable from the Autism Research Group
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City University London is lighting it up blue to support World Autism Awareness Day on 2nd April

To show City University London's support for World Autism Awareness Day on Wednesday 2nd April, the College Building and The Social Science Building will be illuminated with blue lights for the evening.

City has had a research group dedicated to researching autism, officially known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), since 1993. The Autism Research Group comprises three full time researchers and six PhD students, as well as a number of honorary associate staff and collaborators.

Dr Paul A Constable is an optometrist from City's School of Health Sciences. He has been working with the Autism Research Group to study the visual system of individuals with ASD since 2009. We caught up with him to discuss his research:

What part of your work would you most like to draw attention to for World Autism Awareness Day?

Individuals on the autism spectrum have demonstrated superior abilities with visual search. They seem to be able to pick out the detail and locate hidden objects far more quickly than typically developing individuals. They truly do have an eye for detail!

However, this advantage is not apparent with moving objects. Individuals on the autism spectrum have greater difficulty in determining when, for instance, a series of dots are moving together in one direction or randomly. These differences in the perception of motion and detailed patterns were explored using electroencephalograms in participants at the Autism Research Group.

What exactly are electroencephalograms and what did you find?

The electroencephalograms measure the small electrical impulses in the brain when nerve cells are active. We can use these signals to see which part of the brain is being used when the participant looks at a specific image. In our study we found the same parts of the brain were active, but in the ASD participants the electrical activity in this area was greater than the typical individuals indicating a difference in the way the brain processed moving images.null

We found significant differences in the cortical activity of the brain that responds to motion but not to patterns. This finding suggests that the brain processes more complex information, such as motion, differently compared to typical individuals.

However, the responses to patterns were similar in both groups, suggesting that these brain responses were similar. This could mean that the advantages seen in individuals on the autism spectrum in visual search may be the result of higher processes in a different part of the brain.

Is that what you are currently researching?

Yes, currently we are studying the electrical responses to flashes of light by the retina. The retina contains mnullany similar neurotransmitters that are used in the brain. Several genes associated with these neurotransmitters have been linked to autism. By studying the retina's responses to light we may reveal some differences in the retinal responses in autism compared to typical individuals. This may help us to understand more about how the neurotransmitters may be working in the brain of autistic individuals.

In addition it is now possible to do scans of the retina that are similar to an MRI scan, so we are able to look more closely at the structural architecture of the retina in individuals with ASD and compare it to typical retinas. This may reveal differencnulles in the central nervous system's organisation in individuals with ASD using a novel non-invasive approach.

You can follow City's World Autism Awareness Day campaign on twitter #CityInBlue and we'll be posting all the images on our Facebook page after the event.

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City, University of London is an independent member institution of the University of London. Established by Royal Charter in 1836, the University of London consists of 18 independent member institutions with outstanding global reputations and several prestigious central academic bodies and activities.