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Adults with autism

Interview with Professor Dermot Bowler from The Autism Research Group

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.

Professor of Psychology, Dermot Bowler, is the founding academic of City's Autism Research Group. We talked to Professor Bowler recently to find out more about his research:

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

Autism Spectrum Disorder (or ASD) is not a condition that affects only children. It is a life-long condition that many adults need to manage on a daily basis and too many facets of the disorder remain poorly understood.

Our research at the Autism Research Group focuses primarily on memory processes in autism and we have made several important discoveries in recent years.

So what were the early findings from your work?

The Autism Research Group noted early on that adults with autism often experience memory difficulties when asked to recall something they had previously learned. However, when provided with a choice of details they may or may not have learned, they found it much easier to recognise the previously studied information. This pattern of strength and difficulty, which is a widespread characteristic of memory in autism, has led to the formulation of the Task Support Hypothesis (TSH) - the idea that situations can be created for individuals with ASD that capitalise on their areas of strength.

What implications do these findings have for adults living with ASD?

The TSH captures an important aspect of the disorder that should be taken into account when developing educational curricula, for example, and it has led to important work by one of our PhD students, Dr Katie Maras, on how best to support adults with autism who come into contact with the criminal justice system either as victims, witnesses or perpetrators of crime.

The TSH led to further work in order to better understand why individuals with autism sometimes rely more on task support. The Autism Research Group suspected that this may be the result of a difference in the balance between 'relational memory' (important for unsupported recall) and 'item memory' (important for supported recognition) processes.

Can you give an example of what this means?

The group examined this Difficulties with Relational Memory theory through a number of experiments funded by the Medical Research Council.

For example, in one of the most recent studies our researchers asked people with and without autism to study different coloured objects that were placed in different locations within a grid. Memory tests confirmed that autistic participants were as good as non-autistic participants at remembering the objects they had seen, their colours, or the locations that were occupied by them. However, they had difficulties remembering which objects had been in which locations or what colour a particular object was - in other words the object-location or object-colour relation.

Why is this important to understanding the effects of ASD in adults?

"This pattern is an important finding, because it helps explain the greater utility of task support in ASD and also gives clues to the possible brain mechanisms that are involved in autism.

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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