Autism Spectrum studies should control for subjective interpretations

Stimuli interpretation matter

Last month, I ran two studies. In the first, I showed pictures of naked girls to both a group of heterosexual men and a group of homosexual ones. After having compared variations in penis size, I determined that homosexual men suffer from erectal dysfunction. In the second study, I showed pictures of attractive single women walking down the street to both a group of men and a group of women. A few minutes after having removed the pictures, I asked the participants to remember the brands of the bags worn by the ladies in the photos. Since the women participants performed better than the male ones, I concluded that men suffer from memory dysfunction.

Of course, I didn’t actually run these studies. And of course, their conclusions are absurd. But they aren’t much different from the conclusions drawn by some studies on the Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

Let’s take the example of a recent study in which participants were asked to remember the color, position and orientation of some items (such as umbrellas) superimposed to landscape pictures. Participants on the Autism Spectrum performed worse than controls, and the researchers concluded that adults with autism spectrum conditions suffer from impaired recollection of visual scene details. But how is this study different from the hypothetical ones described in the introduction?

In the first study, homosexual men didn’t suffer from erectile dysfunction; they simply didn’t perceive the ladies in the pictures as sexually attractive. In the second study, men didn’t suffer from memory dysfunctions; they simply didn’t perceive the bags as salient items to remember. And in the third study, I propose, the participants on the Autism Spectrum did not suffer from generalized impaired recollection; they only suffered, like everyone else, from impaired recollection of uninteresting memories.

This is a common pattern observed in many studies regarding the Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Researchers assume that the stimuli interpretation for people on the ASD is the same as the one for NTs, and draw conclusions based on such assumption.

Some examples:

  • Memory encoding is dependent from stimulus salience (and surprise, affection, emotional state, etc.). Such conditions should be controlled for, by making sure that stimulus salience for people on the ASD is the same as for NT people.
  • Aspergers aren’t simply more unrespectful of rules. They probably are just as likely as everyone to break rules they didn’t internalize; it’s just that they miss the social incentive to internalize rules.
  • People on the ASD aren’t more selfish; being less able to perceive schemes and deception, leads to an increased perception of others as innocent and thus to help them.

I propose that all studies on the Autistic Spectrum Disorders consider ensuring that not only the stimulus is the same across all groups of participants, but also its subjective interpretation; and that otherwise they focus their study on the reasons behind such difference, rather than on the consequences of it.

Originally published at Luca DellAnna.