Autism Research Group
School of Social Sciences, Department of Psychology
The Autism Research Group in the Department of Psychology, School of Social Sciences, led by Professor Dermot Bowler, comprises academic staff, postdoctoral fellows and doctoral students who share an interest in understanding the psychological and neurocognitive underpinnings of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
The group's research efforts focus mainly on aspects of learning and memory in ASD with additional research into emotional processes, early stages of visual perception, face processing and psychophysiology.
ASD comprises a set of conditions ranging from severe social withdrawal, lack of language and delay in development through to social eccentricity in the presence of average or above-average intellectual ability. Individuals with ASD experience difficulties with reciprocal social interaction and social understanding as well as a tendency to engage in repetitive behaviours.
Although once thought to be rare, ASD is now known to affect one per cent of the population and represents a major call on educational, social and health services.
Over the last decade, the Autism Research Group has been awarded over £750,000 from funding bodies including the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council, the Economic and Social Science Research Council, Autism Speaks and the Nuffield Foundation to further its research into ASD. In addition, the group won the 2009 City University London Annual Research Award for its proposal to study the brain correlation of relational memory difficulties in individuals with ASD.
Earlier studies have shown that when typical individuals are asked to recall lists of words, their recall is enhanced when there are obvious meaningful links among these words; for example if the list contains a series of animals or items of furniture. People with ASD are less able to draw on such links to aid their recall and the work by the Autism Research Group has demonstrated that such difficulties are associated with abnormal functioning of Medial Temporal and Frontal Lobe areas of the brain.
Two years on, the scientists believe that the results of this research project are set to close a gap in our understanding of memory difficulties in those with ASD as well as enhancing our understanding of their inner experience when recollecting past events. This research also has the potential to identify biological markers that can be used in genetic studies of the condition. To date, geneticists have relied almost exclusively on behavioural markers to establish candidate genes.
Dr Sebastian Gaigg from the Autism Research Group says, "We believe that the latest improvement in understanding autism will be highly beneficial to people with ASD, their families and carers. We now have a sound evidence base on which to justify approaches to bodies for large-scale, programme-level funding to continue this line of investigation."