A Bayesian Explanation of Autistic Perception

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The way the brain combines incoming sensory information with existing knowledge may also be different in autism, some researchers argue. In some cases, people with autism might put excess weight on what their senses take in about the world and rely less on their expectations. Old observations fit with this idea. In the 1960s, psychologists had discovered that children with autism were just as good at remembering nonsense sentences (“By is go tree stroke lets”) as meaningful ones (“The fish swims in the pond”). Children without autism struggled to remember the non sequiturs. But the children with autism weren’t thrown by the random string of words, suggesting that their expectations of sentence meaning weren’t as strong as their ability to home in on each word in the series.

Another study supports the notion that sensory information takes priority in people with autism. People with and without autism were asked to judge whether a sight and a sound happened at the same time. They saw a white ring on a screen, and a tone played before, after or at the same time. Adults without autism were influenced by previous trials in which the ring and tone were slightly off. But adults with autism were not swayed by earlier trials, researchers reported in February in Scientific Reports.

This literal perception might get in the way of speech perception, Marco Turi of the University of Pisa in Italy and colleagues suggest. Comprehending speech requires a listener to mentally stitch together sights and sounds that may not arrive at the eyes and ears at the same time. Losing that flexibility could make speech harder to understand.

A different study found that children with autism perceive moving dots more clearly than children without autism (SN Online: 5/5/15). The brains of people with autism seem to prioritize incoming sensory information over expectations about how things ought to work. Elizabeth Pellicano of University College London and David Burr of the University of Western Australia in Perth described the concept in 2012 in an opinion paper in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Intensely attuned to information streaming in from the senses, people with autism experience the world as “too real,” Pellicano and Perth wrote.

New data, however, caution against a too-simple explanation. In an experiment presented in New York City in April at the annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, 20 adults with and without autism had to quickly hit a certain key on a keyboard when they saw its associated target on a screen. Their job was made easier because the targets came in a certain sequence. All of the participants improved as they learned which keys to expect. But when the sequence changed to a new one, people with autism faltered. This result suggests that they learned prior expectations just fine, but had trouble updating them as conditions changed, said cognitive neuroscientist Owen Parsons of the University of Cambridge.

Perceptual experience is influenced both by incoming sensory information and prior knowledge about the world, a concept recently formalised within Bayesian decision theory. We propose that Bayesian models can be applied to autism – a neurodevelopmental condition with atypicalities in sensation and perception – to pinpoint fundamental differences in perceptual mechanisms. We suggest specifically that attenuated Bayesian priors – ‘hypo-priors’ – may be responsible for the unique perceptual experience of autistic people, leading to a tendency to perceive the world more accurately rather than modulated by prior experience. In this account, we consider how hypo-priors might explain key features of autism – the broad range of sensory and other non-social atypicalities – in addition to the phenomenological differences in autistic perception.

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