The atypical perceptual style that characterises autism, i.e. increased awareness of the local aspects of a visual scene often at the expense of the more contextually salient aspects of the visual scene, has been well described by previous research and observational-/self-reports. On-going research carried out within ShARL is concentrated on establishing the factors, whether they be external, e.g. cultural, or internal, e.g. neurological, that lead to this atypical perceptual style. It is hoped that by clearly defining these factors we can move some way towards identifying biomarkers that are unique to autism spectrum disorders. However, autism is not a homogeneous disorder; people with autism can, and do, vary widely in terms of their cognitive abilities and behavioural symptoms. We are working on classifying this variability and identifying unique neural correlates of the variability. This is a difficult task which requires a lot of data and detailed analysis, but by collaborating with colleagues in the NHS and with the help from many enthusiastic people from local schools for children with and without autism we are making some headway with this work.
Members of ShARL, led by Dr Megan Freeth, are interested in how social information is attended to and processed. We have demonstrated that, contrary to popular belief, individuals with High-Functioning Autism(HFA) and Aspergers syndrome are able to process social information very effectively. They are able to follow another person’s eye-gaze direction with a high degree of accuracy and are often very interested in other people. However, the key difference seems to lie in how fast this information can be processed . Because individuals with HFA and Aspergers syndrome tend to be a little slower to process social information, this can cause certain types of information to be missed. We are currently investigating whether similar difficulties are experienced by individuals with sub-clinical autistic traits. We have recently shown that social anxiety and autistic traits are closely linked and are now looking to investigate whether people that experience both social anxiety and autistic traits have particular problems attending to social information. At ShARL, as well as carrying out laboratory based research, we also believe it is important to base research on real life situations and scenarios. We are currently working towards understanding how individuals with autism and sub-clinical autistic traits engage in real life social interactions with a view to helping to improve social attention strategies in those who experience difficulties.