PsychologiCALL

On sensory integration and autism, with Kirsty Ainsworth

March 05, 2021 SalvesenResearch Season 2 Episode 5
PsychologiCALL
On sensory integration and autism, with Kirsty Ainsworth
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Kirsty Ainsworth is a psychologist and lecturer at University of Glasgow who specialises in autism and sensory perception. During this podcast she chats to Sue about a piece of research on multisensory integration in autism.

You can find out more about Kirsty's work by checking out the site for her former lab in MicGill here, and you can follow her on twitter here.

The paper discussed in this episode is:
Ainsworth, K., Ostrolenk, A., Irion, C., & Bertone, A. (2020). Reduced multisensory facilitation exists at different periods of development in autism. Cortex, 134, 195-206.

Many thanks to Naomi Meiksin for editing the transcript for this episode. 

Intro:

Oh, it is recording. I see the little figure. Okay, great. I will do my little spiel and then I'll introduce you. Nice. Okay. Here I go.

Sue:

Hi, I'm Sue from the Salvesen Mindroom Research Center at the University of Edinburgh and I'm recording another episode of our podcast, PsychologiCALL, where I phone developmental psychologists around the UK to talk to them about some recent research they've done. We're just trying to make a contribution to the conversations a lot of us are having at the moment about child and adolescent wellbeing and development in learning and so on. And today's PsychologiCALL is with Kirsty Ainsworth , from the university of Glasgow and Kirsty is going to talk to me about a recent paper, looking at multisensory facilitation , uh , across development in autism. Hi Kirsty, how are you?

Kirsty:

Hi Sue, I'm great, how are you?

Sue:

Really well, thank you. So glad to have you on the podcast.

Kirsty:

It's lovely to be here, thanks for having me.

Sue:

So why don't you start by telling me, Kirsty, what you discovered when you did this piece of research?

Kirsty:

Sure. So what we found , um , was a difference basically in the way that autistic children integrate auditory and visual information. This is also known as multisensory integration, and we found this to be consistent across age. So from younger years, like age six, all the way through to adolescence, up to age eighteen.

Sue:

Amazing. Um, so let's think about that kind of integration of, of information. Can you tell me a bit more about what we mean by multisensory integration?

Kirsty:

Sure. So multisensory integration is , um, our sort of perceptual ability to take , uh , for example, visual information and auditory information at the same time. So let's say for example, when you're - you're Skyping someone or on a zoom call you have both auditory and visual information and what that usually does is it facilitates our, sort of, the ability for us to understand that person. The , the speed in which we can comprehend what they're saying is, is usually improved when we have both visual and auditory information. And unisensory would be just one of those things. So just the visual information or just the auditory information.

Sue:

So, so we were watching Netflix the other day and there was obviously something wrong with our signal because the, the audio was like lagging slightly behind what was happening on screen, right? So I guess that's an example of when, when these two things don't match up and it becomes really hard to , to understand what's going on. Is that right?

Kirsty:

Absolutely. So it's something that we really take for granted, and it's not until you're in those moments where something is just slightly off and it completely sort of messes with your head and, you know, this, that we're constantly processing multi-sensory integration all the time. So when, as soon as it is slightly, out of sync it really does, it really becomes obvious to us.

Sue:

Mmm. And so why is this an interesting thing to be looking at in autistic people?

Kirsty:

So, atypical sensory processing, you know , it's something that's been sort of anecdotally , uh , characteristic of autism for a long time. So as far back as you know, Kanner's original descriptions of autism, sensory processing was in there. However, sort of sensory experiences have not really been included as like a core characteristic of autism until the most recent iteration of the diagnostic manual, so DSM-5. So this means that really like experimental research on sensory processing and autism is still relatively young. So it's something that is, you know, a lot of people on the autistic community are really aware of wanting to know more about sensory experiences, but it's only recently that we've began to study this experimentally.

Sue:

And so that's, that's a lovely hook for me to go into asking you about your methods, right? Because in my experience, and I've not really done research in this area, but a lot of it tends to be kind of questionnaire based, which is very valuable for understanding the day-to-day experience of kind of the sensory experience for autistic people. Um, but did you do something more experimental then, in this study?

Kirsty:

Yeah , so this study was actually conducted at McGill University in the PM lab. And what we did was we have sort of , uh , experimental rooms, so a testing room. Then we let's quiet and we set up , uh, uh , computer based experiments. This is a simple task that the participant has to do , uh, in which they sort of respond to something that we present to them. And this is just sort of a basic experimental task and we use something called the target detection task, which is an established multi-sensory integration task. Um, and so, so the task involves basically participants sitting in their room, they've got a button in their hand and they're asked to detect (as fast as possible) the stimulus that is presented to them. And then we present to them, you know, randomized trials, which are either auditory (so, they get a beep in their ears), visual (which is a flash on the screen) or audiovisual (which is both the beep and the flash together) and their task is to press the button as fast as possible. And what previous research using this task in neurotypical participants - what we find is that we have this sort of, you know, there there's an advantage when the stimulus is audiovisual. So just kind of like what you were saying about , um, you know, Netflix, like is - as soon as something becomes out of sync , it's, it's, it really messes with our heads. So having this audiovisual condition often makes us faster at processing something even if it's sort of , um, subconscious - that we're actually not noticing that we're doing it.

Sue:

And I suppose in one sense, that seems a bit counter-intuitive because you've got two signals that you need to process. So you'd think if anything that would slow you down a bit , um, but it's actually speeding us up. Right?

Kirsty:

Absolutely. So it's exactly yeah we would expect that having, you know, w we're having to process more information. So it's , it's the addition of the audio and the visual, surely that would take more processing time? But what we found is, well, in the neurotypical population anyway, is that often the audiovisual, the multi-sensory integration actually makes us faster, [inaudible] things in a faster way,

Sue:

But, but not for autistic people? Were they slowed down in that condition, is that right?

Kirsty:

Yeah. So what we found is that , um, so we did this thing called the RACE model , um , type of analysis, and essentially this allow, this sort of analysis that allows us to assess the performance on the audiovisual trials, relative to the combined effect of just the audio and the visual alone, based on that individual's own performance. So we were able to see, for our autistic participants, actually having the audiovisual stimulus - does that speed up your reaction? Does, is that actually giving you added value that we found, you know, in previous research in the neuro neurotypical literature . And what we find is that that's not the case. So having this sort of audiovisual stimulus does not seem to produce a faster reaction time compared to the combined effects of audio and visual on their own. And we found that consistently in children and also in adolescents , uh, autistic adolescents.

Sue:

Yeah, I was going to ask about the age range. So , um, so can you just tell me a bit more - and I assume these weren't the same kids when they'd grown up, right? These are different groups of young people?

Kirsty:

Yes. Um , we actually just took did a kind of cross-sectional analysis. So we had 45 autistic participants and 110 neurotypical participants and our age range was between 6 and 18 years old.

Sue:

Great. Um, so, so this is, so this is beeps and flashes, right? Um, so I mean, my feeling is that that adds a huge amount of value because it gives you kind of total control, right? Cause in the real world, the sounds that we hear and the sights that we see, you know, are so variable and it's very hard to kind of capture them. Um, but I wonder, I suppose if you wanted to kind of take the next step and go take a step towards something more , um, like our day-to-day experience of the sensory environment, like, what would you do next after this?

Kirsty:

So , um, something that we are are looking at is also including a social element to , uh , the multisensory integration. So something including emotions, for example. So having auditory and visual information, does this improve emotional perception? Also something, again, a sort of established paradigm is the McGurk effect. Previous research has found that , um , autistic individuals are less susceptible to the McGurk illusion. So that is also something that we would be interested in looking at across age, because we don't really know much about the sort of trajectory of that. And we kinda wanted to look at the rule basics of it, so stripping everything away so that we have no kind of bias of social content or anything like that. So that's really why we chose this task was to kind of go back into the very, very simple and basic beeps and flashes, as you say, you know. Um, how, what did we find with this process if we take away all of that information and then hopefully in the future we can then compare that to your performance when we add in more information. So , uh, social information, or even things like , um, temporal information. So at what point does - you know, when audio and visual information is out of sync - at what point does that become problematic and is this different between autistic and neurotypical participants?

Sue:

Mmm. It's so interesting, isn't it? And it's so important, it kind of takes me back to my PhD where, you know, that the kind of , um, one of the big conclusions I came to is that, you know, we're , we're treating social information , um , especially in experimental tasks, you know, social information is often just like one person, one person's face or whatever. And we're treating , um, autistic people's processing of information as if it tells us purely about some sort of social process, right? Interest in other people, motivations to interact with other people, that kind of thing. But actually we're ignoring the fact that a lot of our social information is multi-sensory , you know? And you have to process the words that someone's saying, but also the tone of voice in which it's being delivered and the expression and the gestures and all of these kind of information channels are coming in. And so if that was hard to integrate , um, that, that would give you a huge disadvantage in the social world that's nothing at all to do with how interested you are in other people, for example, but it is absolutely down to this kind of much more fundamental process, which as you said, has been, you know, maybe not , um , not captured in as much detail as it should have been up to this point.

Kirsty:

Yeah, absolutely. And, you know , that's kind of one of the key aims of doing this type of research is, you know, if we can sort of strip back and look at these basic perceptual processes, what we hope is that we'll provide a platform for research looking at, you know , these cascading effects that might occur from these perceptual differences. So say for example, if there is this real sort of difference in multisensory integration at very young age how much does that influence the development of learning language, social communication? Is there a sort of cascading effect that this perceptual difference might have on the development of these things later on?

Sue:

So interesting. Um, so I don't want to ask you to go on too much of a limb because we have just established that the whole point here is to sort of strip away some of the complexity and the detail, but , um, if you were making recommendations to people, maybe autistic people who are listening or parents with autistic kids or teachers, do you think there's anything that we can learn from this , um, about the sort of sensory environment that we can act upon?

Kirsty:

It's quite a difficult question for this. Um, I guess - I'm not really sure how to answer that. Um, I think that hopefully this will kind of , um, influence future research that might be able to give us more sort of practical implications related to multisensory integration. Um, but I know there is sort of information out there related to sort of training in this area. For example, there's some really cool research with , um, Jim Tanaka's lab at UVic, which is more related to the social nature of , um, uh, sort of getting like combining auditory and visual information. Um, but I'm afraid sort of from this research , um, I can'gt sort of recommend, I guess, a specific thing for teachers and kids . But as I say, what I really hope is that this can provide a platform for those types of things to , to sort of follow on from that. That's what I really hope.

Sue:

Yeah, absolutely. You're a very good scientist, Kirsty - you are refusing to go out on a limb and we all wish that there were some more scientists who would be that restrained. But maybe, maybe we could say that we shouldn't underestimate the importance of the sensory domain for autistic people. I guess that's one thing, isn't it? Um , so before we finish one very marvellous thing that has happened recently for you (which I personally am delighted about) is that you have come back to Scotland and you are a lecturer at the university of Glasgow, which is so fab. Um, so from that , um, lofty position of , um, professional achievement, I wondered if you had any advice for kind of early career researchers, PhD students who are following a bit in your footsteps.

Kirsty:

Thank you so much, that's so kind of you. Um, and yeah, I have been extremely lucky that I was able to go abroad. You know, I did my post-doc at , um , McGill University in Montreal. Um, and I think honestly, for me, something that, that really benefitted me is that collaboration. So reaching out to other , um, academics and different settings, different places in the world and trying to physically visit those places if possible is something that has really shaped me as a researcher. You know, not just like learning about how different labs and teaching works abroad, but also just absorbing cultures and being exposed to different points of view. So, for me , um, and maybe this is kind of not the best advice during like a global pandemic, but I think what I'm trying to say is just reaching out and trying to sort of extend your network as much as possible is something that really am so grateful for that , um, you know, that I've had the opportunities to do that through throughout the past few years. Um , and something else would also just be to seek out those opportunities related to, you know, university work or postgraduate work that is over and above just the academic site. So for example, during my PhD, I was lucky to get all these really excellent trainings on things like public engagement or , um, you know, writing for a non-scientific audience. All of these things that we sort of almost take for granted a little bit but are so useful and we're really lucky to have them. So I guess I would suggest really reaching out to those things that are not just kind of at your desk and getting, you know, the academic work done (which of course is really important) but branching out a little bit into those other areas is something that I really benefitted from.

Sue:

Thank you so much Kirsty - great advice. Um, especially the going to McGill part. I think specifically going to MicGill is something we, you and I would both recommend - I spent a few weeks there , um, the first year after my PhD. Not very long, but it was just fab, right? So yeah, top tips, post pandemic. Um, so I think we need to wrap up there - we do try to, well I keep calling this podcast bite -size but I get carried away and ask too many questions. Um, thank you so much for your time, and for anyone who's listening, you'll be able to find out more about Kirsty's work including a link to the paper that we discussed , um, by looking at the podcast description on Buzzsprout or in your podcast app. Thank you so much Kirsty !

Kirsty:

Thanks so much for having me.

Sue:

Bye!

Outro:

Okay, we did it! I thought that went quite smoothly.