Goldsmiths, University of London researchers working with adults recently diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder have found high rates of depression, low employment, and an apparent worsening of some ASD traits as people age.
The number of UK adults over 65 with ASD is expected to reach 155,000 by 2035, but little is known about the trajectory of wellbeing or cognitive and social abilities of people as they get older.
Goldsmiths’ psychologists believe that while anecdotal reports indicate an improvement in ASD symptoms with age, a lifetime developing coping strategies does not reduce traits, but may reduce the effects of them. As a result, the speed or likelihood of a formal ASD diagnosis could be reduced as symptoms are ‘hidden’.
Dr Rebecca Charlton and colleagues worked with 100 adults recently diagnosed with ASD by a specialist centre, to explore and identify patterns in characteristics. Participants were over 18 and had an IQ in the normal range, with no learning disabilities.
In the hope that new insights into characteristics could help healthcare officials with the diagnostic process, researchers also compared the group with 46 individuals referred to the centre but then not then given an ASD diagnosis.
Their study found:
- An association between age and autism traits such as difficulties with socialisation, communication and imagination. Autism Quotient (AQ) scores from self-testing increased by 2.19 points per decade. This did not happen in the group not given an ASD diagnosis.
- An association between age and the tendency to analyse and extract rules (‘systemising’). Systemising scores from self-testing increased by 10.4 points per decade in the ASD group. This did not happen in the group not given an ASD diagnosis.
- Older adults in the ASD group performed better than younger participants in some neuropsychological tests for processing speed and visuospatial ability, but not in others (for example, vocabulary or maths.
- Less than half of people from both groups were either studying or in full-time employment. This is a similar level to the ASD population as a whole, including individuals with IQs outside of the normal range.
- High rates of depression and anxiety in both groups. A third of the ASD group experienced these conditions.
- No differences between the ASD and non-ASD group in terms of having a family history of ASD.
- Notably lower rates of epilepsy than is found in individuals who have both ASD and learning disabilities.
Further research across individuals’ adult lifespan, and comparisons with a control group of typically developed adults, are now required says Dr Charlton, if we are to better understand ASD characteristics and the possible worsening of symptoms with aging.
She explains: “We observed a greater tendency among older participants with ASD to analyse and extract rules, to systemise the world. Is this a worsening of an ASD trait or something that also occurs in typically developed people as they get older?
“Or it could be that insight and understanding of autism spectrum disorder improves with age, leading to poorer self-ratings as people become more aware of their traits.
“The increasing severity of symptoms with age could reflect a referral bias, where young adults with mild symptoms, or their parents, may be motivated to seek a diagnosis as a way of accessing support, but older adults with mild ASD traits may not.”
‘Demographic and cognitive profile of individuals seeking a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder in adulthood’ by Rebecca Charlton, Hassan Mansour (Goldsmiths), Francesca Happé (King’s College London), Pippa Barrett, Tony Brown and Patricia Abbott (Autism Diagnostic Research Centre, Southampton) was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders on 22 August 2016.
Shake, Rattle and Roll: baby science inspires musical for toddlers
Written by Sarah Cox
Published on 16 August 2016
Research by Goldsmiths and Birkbeck infant experts has inspired a new musical theatre show designed to literally have its young audience rolling in the aisles. Shake, Rattle and Roll premieres at the Brain Waves Festival this September.
Psychologist Dr Caspar Addyman (InfantLab, Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths) and his Birkbeck Babylabcolleagues Sinead Rocha and Rosy Edey worked with Polka Theatre to produce the fun and lively 45-minute performance for children aged 6 – 18 months.
Acclaimed children’s theatre director Sarah Argent was inspired by their research into how and why babies laugh, move, and read body language, and designed a theatrical experience to get a young audience wiggling and giggling.
Shake, Rattle and Roll is part of the Brain Waves Festival, a new event for children and their families which spans theatre, science and learning, focusing on the latest advances in the study of child brain development.
From 21 Sep – 2 Oct Polka presents a programme of theatre productions, workshops and participatory activities, alongside talks and discussions for adults, scientists and artists.
Each performance of Shake, Rattle and Roll includes a short dance and play session at the end, and throughout the shows Sinead will be investigating infants’ spontaneous natural rhythm.
Dr Addyman is a developmental psychologist interested in learning, laughter and behaviour change. The majority of his widely-publicised research is with babies.
He explains: “Baby theatre is something new for me but I couldn’t resist the idea of a play for babies about baby science. I’ve learned a lot from collaborating with Sarah Argent and the team at Polka theatre. The challenges we face are rather similar – holding a baby’s attention and leading them through something new and unfamiliar. I can’t wait to see how babies like the show.
Goldsmiths University of London’s Dr Michael Banissy has been awarded this year’s Spearman Medal from the British Psychological Society in recognition of his outstanding body of published work.
Reader in Psychology Dr Banissy is a leader in the study of conscious vicarious perception – where individuals consciously experience the same sensation they see another feeling.
He has led developments in our understanding of these experiences by conducting pioneering studies on mirror-touch synaesthesia (where individuals experience touch on their own body when seeing touch to others) and developing the existing neurocognitive model.
He has also used this understanding to explore the general mechanisms of interpersonal representation and social processing we all use.
Additionally, he has made significant contributions to other areas of psychology, including face perception, emotion processing, social cognition, and memory.
Dr Banissy said: “I am delighted to have been awarded the Spearman Medal and feel extremely honoured to be amongst the list of winners. I’d like to thank the BPS for the award and Professor Andrew Bremner for nominating me.
“This achievement would not have been possible without the help of some excellent colleagues, collaborators, and lab members. I am very grateful to them all. I would particularly like to thank my mentors, Professors Vincent Walsh and Jamie Ward, for their insight and support from the start.
My lab is currently working on a number projects that seek to determine mechanisms that contribute to our ability to determine social signals displayed by others, how these abilities vary between us, and means by which they can be improved.
Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes, President of the Society, said: “The Spearman Medal is one of the British Psychological Society’s most prestigious awards and is given to early career researchers, such as Dr Banissy, whose work is excellent in quality and influential in nature. Dr Banissy receives my wholehearted congratulations.”
The Spearman Medal is awarded annually by the Society’s Research Board to recognise a body of outstanding published work produced by a psychologist within eight years of the completion of his or her PhD.
The British Psychological Society is the representative body for psychology and psychologists in the UK. It is responsible for the development, promotion and application of psychology for the public good.
Urban living and access to schooling shapes how kids perceive size, research indicates
Written by: Sarah Cox
Children who have grown up in urban environments fall for a well-known optical illusion more often than kids from remote cultures – because access to schooling has changed the way we look at pictures, a Goldsmiths, University of London study suggests.
Researchers from the Department of Psychology showed children from 3-years-of age the Ebbinghaus illusion on a computer screen.
Participants were from remote Himba villages in Northern Namibia, or from a town called Opuwo – the nearest urban development to the Himba. Data from UK residents, collected in an earlier study, was also analysed.
The illusion shows two circles placed near to each other, with one surrounded by large circles and the other surrounded by small circles. For many people, the central circle surrounded by large circles will appear smaller than the central circle surrounded by small circles, even when this is not actually the case.
In UK children this illusion develops in early childhood. When judging which of the target circles was larger, 9-10 year-old UK kids were fooled by the illusion and made more mistakes than younger UK children.
But the Himba children were not much fooled at all until they were of secondary school age.
From 9-10 years, traditional Himba children were much more immune to the illusion than British kids, correctly stating more often which circle was larger. This age group of Himba children also beat the illusion more often than the urban Namibian children who had received formal schooling.
In fact, the study authors found that the number of years urban Namibian children were at school was the main factor predicting how much children were fooled by the illusion.
The 50 Himba children who took part (from a total of 336 participants) were from a community of semi-nomadic herders who have limited contact with Western culture and artefacts. Their ages had to be estimated, as the community does not usually keep birth records.
Why does this happen?
The researchers believe that Western children have developed to process visual context (in this case, the circles surrounding the central circle) differently to Himba children because of the way they’ve engaged with pictures and print as they’ve grown.
The study showed that while UK children are processing context by the age of 9 or 10, Himba children are completely unaffected by it.
It’s likely that cluttered urban environments impact on the development of a child early in life, but pictorial and printed materials become particularly relevant in middle-childhood around the age of 9-10 – the same point at which a divergence between Himba and UK children was observed in the Ebbinghaus illusion test.
Lead researcher Professor Andy Bremner, Head of Psychology at Goldsmiths, explains:
We believe that living in a cluttered urban environment and going through formal schooling plays a role in changing the way we involve context in our visual perceptions.
“There are some well-known differences in the way different cultures perceive visual shapes and patterns, but our study goes further in providing an account of how these differences emerge through the interaction of nature and nurture in early development.
“We found that development of differences between the cultural groups was complete by about 10-years of age, which helps us hone in on one particular explanation.
“Rather than being due to differences in how we focus our attention – something that continues to develop in later childhood – we believe that cross-cultural differences in the Ebbinghaus illusion are due to how we take context into account when we look at the world.
“Perceiving and understanding context isn’t a universal human feature, but something that develops quite differently depending on where or how you grow up.”
‘Effects of Culture and the Urban Environment on the Development of the Ebbinghaus Illusion’ by Andrew J. Bremner, Jan de Fockert, Karina J. Linnell, Jules Davidoff (Goldsmiths), Martin Doherty (University of East Anglia) and Serge Caparos (Universite de Nimes) is published in the journal ‘Child Development’.
Big Data and Open Access projects win British Academy Rising Star Engagement awards for Goldsmiths psychologists
Written by: Sarah Cox
Published on: 30 Mar 2016
Goldsmiths, University of London psychologists Dr Sophie von Stumm and Dr Caspar Addyman have been awarded Rising Star Engagement research awards 2016 by the British Academy.
Now in its second year, the British Academy’s Rising Star Engagement (BARSEA) Scheme provides funding of up to £15,000 to 29 distinguished Early Career Researchers to assist their career development through organising interdisciplinary events for other Early Career Researchers.
Dr Caspar Addyman is a developmental psychologist with research interests in learning, laughter and behaviour change in infants. A member of the Department of Psychology’s InfantLab, he joined Goldsmiths in 2015 from Birkbeck.
Open Access is one step in a bigger journey that researchers have been slow to take, Dr Addyman explains. His award of £10,682 will allow him to organise a one-day workshop with a strong practical element that will inspire and educate researchers across all social sciences disciplines on how to do better.
“Our research is publically funded and is supposed to have an impact on the world,” he explains. “I strongly believe that the whole process should be open to more scrutiny and outputs shared more freely. Open Access is just one small part of this. It also requires sharing code, data and materials to improve reproducibility.
There should be greater public engagement before, during and after research is conducted. And we should write and communicate without jargon in venues beyond traditional journals and monographs.
“The workshop will be led by experts already doing these things. The support of the British Academy and of Goldsmiths as hosts is hugely important in getting these ideas out beyond STEM into the wider research community. It is, of course, free and open to everyone.”
As a lecturer in psychology and head of the Hungry Mind Lab, Dr Sophie von Stumm’s research focuses on individual differences in cognitive ability and personality traits. She has received £14,801 from the British Academy for work empowering early career researchers to collect ‘big data’ with innovative assessment tools.
Recent technological advances have led to a vast number of research tools that enable collecting ‘big’ high-quality data. However, many early career researchers lack expertise and resources to apply these tools in their own studies, which creates a loss for their individual careers and for science in general.
Dr von Stumm and her Hungry Mind Lab team will organise a showcase event at which established scientists, technology companies, and media and crowd-sourcing experts will introduce early career researchers to the latest assessment tools from different scientific disciplines.
She explains that it’s an exciting time for early career researchers in the social and behavioural sciences: “Modern technology has opened an unprecedented wealth of possibilities to produce innovative and high-quality research – but this also comes with challenges. What are the latest methods available for collecting ‘big data’? How do we best engage the public to participate in research? And who can we consult on modern assessment technology?”
Find out more about this year’s BARSEA award winners on the British Academywebsite.
New research to explore intentionality biases in interpreting human behaviour.
The Leverhulme Trust has offered Goldsmiths, University of London a research project grant for three years, for £164,459. The project will be directed by Dr James Moore, and will look at why we seem to prefer intentional over unintential accounts of human action.
“The ability to distinguish between intentional and unintentional movements is integral to our social lives. Judging someone else’s action to be intentional carries with it the assumption that they are also responsible. Not only is this important in terms of the day-to-day navigation of our social world, it is also important in our systems of law, where criminal responsibility rests on judgements of intentionality”, explains Dr. Moore.
“Interestingly, recent evidence suggests that people usually prefer intentional explanations to unintentional or situational ones. This inclination towards intentional attributions has been termed “the intentionality bias”.
“Our project will investigate this bias, looking at the psychological and neural processes responsible for it. In doing so I hope to shed more light on the nature of intention attribution in humans”.
Isolation and poor mental health in over-60s with elevated autistic traits is cause for concern, research suggests
Written by: Sarah Cox
Published on 11 Mar 2016
Older adults with mild autistic traits are much more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and difficulty ‘getting things done’ than adults without such traits, research by Goldsmiths, University of London indicates.
With autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the elderly an under-explored area, and older individuals with ASD difficult to recruit to studies, the psychologists believe that studying people who have mild autistic traits could inform our knowledge on aging and autism.
Previous research shows that 20-50% of family members of an individual with ASD display behaviours characteristic of ASD; these traits also exist in the general population and are known as the broad autism phenotype (BAP).
About the study
Adults aged 61-88 years were asked to report traits common in ASD such as social problems, ‘aloofness’, appropriate use of language in social situations, as well as ‘executive functions’ – including the ability to plan and organise behaviour.
The 66 participants were then categorised into two groups: 20 adults with the BAP and 46 adults without the BAP.
Individuals in the BAP group, even after controlling for age, education, sex and health problems, exhibited more real world ‘executive function’ problems, and reported lower levels of social support, and higher rates of depression and anxiety than the control group.
Older adults in the BAP group were likely to have a smaller social network, fewer close friends, and less frequent social interactions than those in the control group.
The study was led by Dr Rebecca Charlton with MSc student Jessica Budgett (Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths) and Dr Gregory Wallace (Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, The George Washington University), and is the first investigation into the BAP in the context of older adulthood, and its association with mental health difficulties.
Why is this important?
“Only recently has there been a focus on adulthood and aging in ASD so the knowledge on it is woefully small,” explains Dr Charlton.
“The first individuals diagnosed with ASD in the 1940s are now reaching old age so we hope there will be more opportunities for study.
“But there have long been difficulties in recruiting older individuals with ASD to take part in research. Studies such as ours – which utilises individuals with BAP traits instead – may be less impeded by difficulties, but can still inform knowledge on aging and ASD.
“A combination of a rapidly growing elderly population, and increases in adulthood ASD diagnoses poses a growing social and financial challenge. Greater knowledge is important for identifying risk factors that might affect the management and planning of services for this elderly population.
A survey by the National Autistic Society conducted in 2008 found that only 8% of individuals with ASD had most of their support from professionals, with 46% having most support provided by their families.
“With an aging ASD population, as individuals start to lose family members, we could begin to see more devastating isolation, loneliness and depression, an increased risk for dementia and the onset of both physical and social impairments.”
Participants were recruited via the University of the Third Age in Ealing, two West London GP surgeries, and by posting information on online forums for older adults and relatives of those with an ASD diagnosis, such astalkaboutautism.org.uk.
Aging and Autism Spectrum Disorder: Evidence from the Broad Autism Phenotype will be published in the journal Autism Research on Friday 11 March.
New research to ask if toys work best in helping UK and immigrant kids’ friendships
Written by Sarah Cox
Psychologists at Goldsmiths, University of London will start new research this year to find out whether just three minutes of play with diverse Playmobil toys could encourage friendly interaction between UK-born children and recent arrivals from overseas.
A study led by the same researcher indicates that wheelchair-using Playmobil™ models can help children better imagine friendships with wheelchair-using peers.
Participants will be asked to play with the toys just once, for three minutes.
To confirm the toys’ effectiveness, the children will then be tested on their interaction with the profiles of immigrant children online, and whether they would fairly distribute resources, such as stickers, in a game with them.
Dr Jones’ research over the past few years has suggested that interacting in a Playmobil ™ playground improves friendship intentions towards disabled children. Kids get used to a Playmobil ™ toy figure in a wheelchair and see that model to be as socially important and capable of playing as the other models who do not use wheelchairs.