Further Information About ShARL

For many with ASC the world can be an overwhelming place. This is caused in-part by differences in perception and attention which result in hyper-sensitivity to certain types of stimuli, e.g. noise or visual patterns, and a reduction in the ability to filter-out irrelevant aspects of the environment leading to sensory overload. The research carried out by ShARL focuses on developing a better understanding of perception and attention in those with ASC in an attempt to identify techniques that will enable the strengths afforded by this perceptual style to be harnessed, and the difficulties to be reduced.

The lab has grown considerably over the last five years, and we are now tackling a range of research topics including: variability and heterogeneity in the autism phenotype; public perception of ASC; social attention in ASC; autism in adulthood; and markers of neural excitation and inhibition that may represent biomarkers for ASC. Since 2014 we have also started to investigate the cognitive and behavioural profile of other neurodevelopmental conditions including Sotos syndrome, Russell-Silver syndrome and 16p11.2 deletion and duplication.

The perceptual style that characterises autism, i.e. increased awareness of the local aspects of a visual environment often at the expense of the more contextually salient aspects of the visual environment, 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 conditions. However, autism is not a homogeneous condition; 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 are also 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.