Teaching people who have autism spectrum disorder to acquire new information by repeating it can harm their ability to apply that learned knowledge to other situations, according to an international research team.

OT_News-01Their findings challenge popular educational approaches designed for people with ASD that focus on repetition and drills. A brief communication with the study results was published Oct. 5 on the website of the journal Nature Neuroscience.

People with ASD sometimes learn a new behavior or skill only in a specific context, but they then have difficulty transferring what they’ve learned to a new context.

“There have been few systematic investigations into the fundamental mechanisms by which information is acquired by ASD individuals — and into the potential reasons for their restricted, atypical learning,” Marlene Behrmann, PhD, the Cowan Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University and a faculty member in the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, said in a news release. “This study begins to scratch the surface of the phenomenon.”

Using a computer screen, high-functioning adults with ASD and control participants were trained to find the location of three diagonal bars surrounded by horizontal lines. Both groups were asked to identify the diagonal bars during eight daily practice sessions, and their speed and accuracy were measured. The bars stayed in the same location for the first four days and were moved to a second location in the display for days five through eight.

“It was crucial to set up the experiment this way so that we could initially observe the learning in the ASD individuals in a simple, well-established task but then also document the difficulty in transferring the knowledge as the experiment progressed,” researcher Dov Sagi, PhD, of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel, said in the release.

For the first four days — with the diagonal bars in the first location — learning was equivalent for the ASD and control groups, the results showed. However, once the location of the diagonal bars changed, researchers found a substantial difference. The control group smoothly transitioned to learning the new location, and their performance continued to improve.

In contrast, findings showed the people with ASD performed poorly when the target location was changed and they were not able to improve their performance, indicating they received no benefit from initially learning the first location. Even more interesting, researchers found, they never were able to learn the second location as well as the first, demonstrating an interference in learning that may reflect the consequences of extensive repetition.

“It’s like they showed ‘hyperspecificity’ of learning — their learning became fixed and inflexible — since learning the first location adversely influenced their ability to learn the second instance,” lead author Hila Harris, PhD, of the Weizmann Institute, said in the release.

Next, the researchers looked for ways to circumvent the hyperspecificity. With a new group of ASD adults and controls, they ran the exact same experiment, but this time they occasionally inserted dummy screens that did not contain any diagonal bars.

This time, when the location of the bars changed on the fifth day, the ASD group efficiently learned the new location.

“Our conclusion is that breaks in repetition allow the visual system some time to rest and allow autistic individuals to learn efficiently and to then generalize,” team member David Heeger, PhD, professor of psychology and neural science, New York University, New York City, said in the release. “Repeated stimulation leads to sensory adaptation which interferes with learning and makes learning specific to the adapted conditions. Without adaptation, learning is more efficient and can be generalized.”

The research team believes the findings have important implications for educating people with ASD.

“Individuals with autism need to be taught in ways that support or promote generalization rather than in ways that reinforce over-specificity,” Nancy Minshew, MD, professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Pittsburgh and part of the CNBC, said in the release. “For example, in the context of learning what a dog is, using a full range of examples of dogs — and even of animals, more generally ­— incorporates variability from the beginning and promotes learning a broad concept rather than a specific example.”

The U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation and the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative funded this research. Yoram Bonneh with the University of Haifa, Israel, also participated in the research.

Study abstract: http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nn.4129.html