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Autistic people have difficulties understanding and interacting with other people. We are interested in other non-social aspects that are commonly seen in autistic people such as sensory issues, clumsiness and altered imitation.  Sensory issues can include under or over sensitivity (e.g. feeling overwhelmed by surrounding noise or sights) and preferring to focus on local detail rather than global context. In order to understand these experiences we are examining multi-sensory integration in autistic adults. It is possible that problems combining different senses, or even combining information from one sense could lead to a confusing and different way of experiencing the world. We are also exploring the hypothesis that altered sensory processing could lead to difficulties in controlling movements.  

A further line of investigation is imitation as this plays an important function in social interaction: we frequently imitate people we like and children often play games involving imitation which help with social bonding. We have shown that imitation in autistic people is more affected when there is no visual goal for the action being imitated, such as aimless body movements. This is significant as goal-less imitation occurs more often for social reasons (think of children playing imitation games). We are currently investigating whether this is due to poor motor skills or difficulty paying attention to the movement that could be improved with training.

Example Publications

Poole, D., Gowen, E., Warren, P. A. & Poliakoff, E. (2016). Brief Report: Which came first? Exploring crossmodal temporal order judgements and their relationship with sensory reactivity in autism and neurotypicals. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.  Publication link: 475aa3a2-af92-406b-9c78-966e9a8941f4

Hayes SJ, Andrew M, Elliott D, Gowen E, Bennett SJ (2016). Low Fidelity Imitation of Atypical Biological Kinematics in Autism Spectrum Disorders Is Modulated by Self-Generated Selective Attention. J Autism Dev Disord. 46(2):502-13.

Poole. D, Gowen. E, Warren. P.A, Poliakoff. E (2015) Investigating visual-tactile interactions over time and space in adults with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45 (10), 3316-3326.

Gowen. E and Hamilton. A (2013). Motor abilities in autism: a review using a computational approach. J Autism Dev Disord. 43(2) 323-344

Projects and findings

Virtual reality gaming to improve motor control in autism, August 2014-June 2015, MIMIT, £24k

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The BEAM lab was awarded funds to develop a demonstration version of a motor therapy for individuals with autism. The therapy uses imitation in combination with Microsoft Kinect and involves collaboration with Psychologists, computer scientists, clinicians and software engineers.

Investigating the balance of bottom up and top down factors in autism. PhD work by Stephen Jachim

In Steve Jachim’s research images were presented on a computer screen that looked like randomly scattered sugar-puffs and measured how well ASD and NT groups could link them or 'integrate' them into short lines, longer lines or rectangular shapes. NT participants integrated short lines and rectangles more easily than the ASD group. Conversely, this means that the ASD group were better at segregating the images, and may explain why ASDs are better than NTs at visual search tasks such as 'Where's Wally'.

See publication: Jachim. S, Warren. P, Mcloughlin. N and Gowen. E (2015) Collinear facilitation and contour integration in autism: evidence for atypical visual integration. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 10;9:115