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Study: Too much repetition can hinder learning in those with autism

For people with autism, drilling appears to interfere with the ability to apply knowledge to new situations
October 06, 2015

A new study suggests that, for those who have autism, repetition of information actually hinders the ability to apply what they’ve learned to new situations.

The finding challenges many popular autism education and therapy approaches that emphasize drilling and other forms of repetition.

The study, by an international team of scientists, appears in Nature Neuroscience.

The researchers enrolled a total of 20 adults affected by autism but not intellectual disability in the study. For comparison, they also enrolled 19 unaffected adults matched for IQ, age and gender.

In the first phase of the experiment, the researchers asked ten adults with autism and nine without the condition to find the location of three diagonal lines surrounded by horizontal lines on a computer screen. (See figure at right.)

The researchers measured each participant’s speed and accuracy in finding the diagonal bars during daily practice sessions.

For the first four days, the diagonal lines remained in the same location. On day five, the bars appeared in a new location and remained there through day eight.

Those in the autism group performed just as well as the non-autistic group when learning the initial location of the bars. However, when the location of the diagonal bars changed, a substantial learning difference appeared:

* The participants unaffected by autism found the second location substantially faster than did those on the autism spectrum, and they continued to improve in speed and accuracy each day thereafter.

* By contrast, the participants with autism continued to show difficulty finding the new location. Even on day eight, they were locating it more slowly and with less accuracy than they had found the original location when they first learned the task.

This persistent difficulty, the researchers proposed, suggested that the extensive drilling on days one through four was interfering with the ability to apply the new skill (finding the diagonal bars) in a new context (a changed location).

“It’s like they showed ‘hyperspecificity’ of learning,” says lead researcher Hila Harris, of Israel’s Weizmann Institute. “Their learning became fixed and inflexible – since learning the first location adversely influenced their ability to learn the second instance.”

Next, the researchers looked for a way to circumvent the “hyperspecific” learning. They began again with the second group (ten with autism, ten without). This time, the repetition of the diagonal bar’s first location was broken up with the occasional “dummy” screen that did not contain any diagonal bars. (See figure 2 at right.)

Again the location of the bars changed on the fifth day. But this time, those in the autism group learned the new location just as quickly as those in the comparison group. And like those in the comparison group, they continued to improve in speed and accuracy.

“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,” says study co-author David Heeger, of New York University.

“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,” adds co-author Marlene Behrmann, of Carnegie Mellon University.

The inflexible behavior often associated with autism may be what’s interfering with learning new tasks, the researchers conclude.

“These findings may help us improve educational and vocational programs for those with autism,” comments Lucia Murillo, Autism Speaks assistant director of education research.” Dr. Murillo was not involved in the study.

“Though repetition is a great way to learn new skills, being flexible is just as important,” Dr. Murillo emphasizes. “This reinforces the importance of teaching new skills to children and adults with autism in realistic ways and situations that involve change and not just rote drilling.”

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