Autistic children find it difficult to interact with others but not with each other: study in Pnas

Interaction of autistic children: many people with autism report difficulties in social interaction with people with typical development but not with other autistic people

An anecdotal observation that is now confirmed by a study conducted by an interdisciplinary and international team coordinated by the Italian Institute of Technology and composed of researchers from the Irccs Istituto Giannina Gaslini in Genoa and the University of Hamburg.


The study by Gaslini of Genoa and University of Hamburg on autistic children

At the level of writing, the study revealed differences in how intentional information is written in typical and autistic movement.

This ‘kinematic dissimilarity has an impact on the possibility of reciprocal reading and in particular on the possibility of identifying in the kinematics those variations that convey information about intention’, the researchers explain.

The study showed that children with autism have difficulty identifying information variations in typical kinematics (but not in autistic kinematics), and vice versa, that children with typical development have difficulty identifying information variations in autistic kinematics (but not in typical kinematics).

In particular, the team of researchers studied how information about intention is encoded in the movement of people with typical and autistic development (how the information is written in the movement) and how typical and autistic observers read that information (how the information is read).

Interpreting movement, in fact, is fundamental to interacting with others: whether it is predicting an opponent’s move, as in basketball, or anticipating another person’s intention to pass us an object.

Autistic children, study published in ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ (Pnas)

The study, published in the journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ (Pnas), investigated this ability in a condition such as autism, which is characterised by difficulties in social interaction, and revealed differences between typical and autistic development in both ‘writing’ and ‘reading’ movements, as if there were different codes.

This difference ‘could explain, at least in part’, writes the research team, ‘the difficulties that people with autism encounter in interacting with typically developed people in everyday life.

Conversely, it could explain why people with typical development may also experience difficulties in interacting with people with autism spectrum disorders”.

The study, which involved mathematicians, physicists, psychologists, physicians and neuroscientists, was carried out in two phases: In the first, execution phase, the researchers studied how intention information is written in typical and autistic movement.

To do this they recorded, using motion capture techniques also commonly used in the film environment, actions performed by typically developing children and children with autism with different intentions.

In particular, the children were instructed to grab a bottle and pour water into it (reach to pour) or to grab the bottle and put it into a box (reach to put).

In a second step, videos of the actions recorded in the first phase were used to study the ability of children with typical development and children with autism to read intention from movement.

The children could only see the first part of the action (until they reached the bottle) and were asked to guess the intention: pour or move.

In addition to these reciprocal reading difficulties “there is a specific difficulty of the autistic condition concerning the ability to correctly extract the intentional information encoded in the movement.

Unlike children with typical development, children with autism, once they have identified the information variations, have difficulty in extracting the information contained therein.

This difficulty manifests itself in reference to both typical and autistic actions and can lead children with autism to confuse one intention with another.”

“Autism has been compared to a kind of mind blindness – mind blindness.

However, our study shows that children with autism are not ‘blind’ to the information contained in movement.

They see the characters, but are not always able to identify them and cannot read them,” stresses Cristina Becchio, IIT researcher, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Hamburg and coordinator of the study.

“The challenge for the future is to understand whether it is possible to teach mind reading in movement, as we teach reading in school”.

These results,” adds Lino Nobili, director of Neuropsychiatry at the Giannina Gaslini Institute in Genoa, “suggest how difficulties in social interaction can be reciprocal.

Therefore, any therapeutic intervention must take into account both the individual and the people with whom he or she interacts.

The study provides an important key to understanding autistic behaviour and outlines possible perspectives for intervention and monitoring of therapeutic approaches.”

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Agenzia Dire

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