People with high autistic tendencies see the world very differently

Wednesday 16 December 2015

tree trunk in forest

In summary

  • Study shows people with high autistic tendencies see the world differently
  • People with autism focus on details of a visual scene
  • Results help to explain why autistic individuals often miss the big picture
This may help to explain why such individuals often see the trees – but miss the forest

Researchers at Swinburne University of Technology and La Trobe University, working together with scientists from Canada, have shown that people with high autistic tendencies see the world very differently from those with low autistic tendencies. 

In a study published this week in Royal Society Open Science, the research team found that people on the higher end of the autistic spectrum have a higher tendency to show greater saccadic suppression – the reduction of visual sensitivity during rapid eye movements – than individuals who are lower on the autistic spectrum.

As a consequence, people who score highly on measures of autism, even those who are not clinically autistic, are more likely to concentrate on the details of a visual scene rather than on the overall picture as they move their eyes around. 

“This may help to explain why such individuals often see the trees – but miss the forest.” lead author, Professor David Crewther from Swinburne’s Centre for Human Psychopharmacology said.

Using sophisticated recordings of the electrical activity in the brain, the research team went on to show that the failure to see global visual information during rapid eye movements is associated with greater suppression of input along a particular visual pathway, the so-called ‘magnocellular’ pathway that runs from the eyes deep into the brain.  

Crucially, the results of the study may help to explain why autistic individuals focus more on details and often miss the big picture. 

People with autism could be less aware of the global attributes of things like facial expression as they move their eyes from one part of a scene to another, and this could contribute to their problems in social interactions.