Autism as a disorder of prediction
Researchers suggest autism stems from a reduced ability to make predictions, leading to anxiety.
Anne Trafton | MIT News Office
October 7, 2014
Autism is characterized by many different symptoms: difficulty interacting with others, repetitive behaviors, and hypersensitivity to sound and other stimuli. MIT neuroscientists have put forth a new hypothesis that accounts for these behaviors and may provide a neurological foundation for many of the disparate features of the disorder.
The researchers suggest that autism may be rooted in an impaired ability to predict events and other people’s actions. From the perspective of the autistic child, the world appears to be a “magical” rather than an orderly place, because events seem to occur randomly and unpredictably. In this view, autism symptoms such as repetitive behavior, and an insistence on a highly structured environment, are coping strategies to help deal with this unpredictable world.
The researchers hope that this unifying theory, if validated, could offer new strategies for treating autism.
“At the moment, the treatments that have been developed are driven by the end symptoms. We’re suggesting that the deeper problem is a predictive impairment problem, so we should directly address that ability,” says Pawan Sinha, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and the lead author of a paper describing the hypothesis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week.
“I don’t know what techniques would be most effective for improving predictive skills, but it would at least argue for the target of a therapy being predictive skills rather than other manifestations of autism,” he adds.
The paper’s senior author is Richard Held, a professor emeritus in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Other authors are research affiliates Margaret Kjelgaard and Sidney Diamond, postdoc Tapan Gandhi, technical associates Kleovoulos Tsourides and Annie Cardinaux, and research scientist Dimitrios Pantazis.
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