PsychologiCALL

On pattern learning in autism, with Sebastian Gaigg

April 16, 2021 SalvesenResearch Season 2 Episode 11
PsychologiCALL
On pattern learning in autism, with Sebastian Gaigg
Show Notes Transcript

Sebastian is a psychologist at City University's Autism Research Group, where his research focusses on two main topics; mental health in autism with a particular focus on anxiety, and understanding learning and memory processes across the autism spectrum. During this podcast he chats to Sue about a recent piece of work that sought to establish whether individual differences in aspects of implicit learning might play a role in the varying degrees of language impairments that are seen across the autism spectrum.

You can find out more about Sebastian's work on his profile page and here you can find out more about the wider work of the Autism Research Group at City

The paper discussed in this podcast is
Gaigg, S.B., Krug, M.K., Solomon, M., Roestorf, A., Derwent, C., Anns, S., Bowler, D.M., Rivera, S., Wu Nordahl, C. & Jones, E.J.H. (2020). Eye-tracking reveals absent repetition learning across the autism spectrum: Evidence from a passive viewing task. Autism Research, 13, 1929-1946.

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 everyone. I'm Sue from the Salvesen Mindroom Research Center at the university of Edinburgh, and we're recording another episode of our PsychologiCALL podcast, trying to make a little evidence-based contribution to the conversations we're all having about child and adolescent wellbeing and development and learning at the moment. And today I am talking to Seb Gaigg, from City University of London, who is going to talk to me about a paper. I'm going to read out the title of the paper - it is called "Eye-tracking reveals absent, repetition learning across the autism spectrum: evidence from a passive viewing task". So, u m, I love e ye-tracking studies in autism. I think they're really fascinating. So I'm really excited to talk about this. Hi Seb, how a re you doing?

Seb:

Very well, thank you very much for having me.

Sue:

Thank you very much for coming. Um, so , uh, why don't you start by telling me what you kind of discovered in this piece of research?

Seb:

Okay . So basically what we found is that , uh, autistic adults, as well as children with varying levels of intellectual impairments and learning difficulties have , uh , difficulties anticipating repeating patterns of events of the environment, and the best way to sort of maybe describe it as , uh , with an analogy to the whack-a-mole game, which we all know. And if you imagine sort of playing this game and the mole appears in a repeated sequence of occasions, you'll get quicker and quicker at whacking it basically. And we sort of emulated this type of , uh , exercise in an eye-tracking , um , task where people simply watched a rabbit appearing in repeating sequences of locations. And we saw that typically developing adults and children get quicker at spotting where the rabbit is about to come up, um , whereas autistic children and adults didn't.

Sue:

Great. Um, so , um, that's really interesting. We'll dig into the results a little bit more later on, but first of all, maybe just tell me, like, what made you decide to examine this in, in , um, a kind of autistic sample. You know, was there suggestion already that this might be something that would be difficult for autistic people?

Seb:

Well , um, so yes and no. The main reason why we were interested in this is because , uh, these sorts of repetition learning processes are known to be very important , um, for early language acquisition. So, for example , um, when we learn new vocabulary or pick up on the patterns of grammar, for example, essentially what we're doing is picking up on repeating patterns in sounds and , uh, and patterns of words, for example , um , and there is already quite a lot of work that links repetition learning to early word learning, for example. Um, and we know that autism is often characterized by , uh , language difficulties, but we actually don't yet know a lot about why that's the case. And so what we wanted to test essentially was to see whether difficulties with , um, even non verbal repetition learning might be related to , uh, sort of individual differences in language skills. Uh, to essentially see whether that might be a contributing factor to , to the individual differences in language that we see.

Sue:

Mm. And so were you able - so you mentioned at the beginning I think that you had quite a kind of varied sample in terms of like age and IQ and presumably level of ability as well.

Seb:

Yeah, so, so basically we, we , we ran the experiment essentially twice. First, with a group of adults who , uh, who didn't have language impairments , uh , and the, the main purpose of that was to really fine tune the paradigm, make sure that the [inaudible] works, that we could demonstrate people starting to anticipate where the rabbit would appear, for example. Um, and, to our surprise , uh, adults with autism showed sort of a relative difficulty in anticipating where the rabbit would come up. Um, and we were surprised by that because generally in the literature, there's a suggestion that this form of explicit learning is not a source of difficulty for individuals with autism. Um , and then in the second study, we recruited a relatively large sample of autistic children and non-autistic children. Um , and we were primarily interested in recruiting those who tend to be underrepresented in the literature, so those were the most significant levels of language impairment , intellectual difficulties , maybe additional difficulties that might often prevent them from taking part in research or participating in school activities and things like that. Um, and so I think we had , uh, I cannot remember - over 70 children or something like that. With, with a really quite heterogeneous profile. Um, and again, just as with the adults , we found that , uh, typically developing children , uh, or a good majority of them, started anticipating where the rabbit would appear by looking at the relevant locations pretty quickly. Um, and autistic children tended to do this fairly irregularly. And it wasn't, it wasn't actually that much related to their language profile . So it was, it was sort of a more , um, sort of binary; either children did or didn't anticipate and the vast majority of autistic children didn't anticipate , um, across all of the trials.

Sue:

That's so interesting. So, so it's essentially more of a universal difference associated with autism than you anticipated, right? You thought it would be more related to language level, more of an individual difference.

Seb:

Yes, exactly - what were hoping was to , to have a task that would demonstrate individual differences in the rate at which children would start anticipating. But that it was more a case of children, either, sort of come up to that stage of anticipating, or they didn't. Um, and that was the case for both groups of children, typically developing and autistic children , um, but much more so in , in the autistic children that we saw this sort of [appetence].

Sue:

So , um, let's talk a little bit more about the task, I think. Just to make sure I've understood it right. So, so you've got this , um, rabbit popping up, right? Do the children have to , um, you know, sort of tell you where they think it's going to come next? Or is it more, well the title says it's a , it's a passive viewing task, right? So are you just inferring from where they look, is that right?

Seb:

That's it? Yeah. So the, so the aim was , uh , to keep the task very short and as engaging as possible. So the task essentially was , uh , uh , was a short video that lasted around about four to five minutes , uh , that had some music playing as it was sort of unfolding. And children were simply told (or asked) to watch out for the bunny . That was the only instruction that they were given. Um, and we, we made sure that children understood by sort of giving them , uh, some fairly guided instructions in terms of like, here's the bunny, let's have a look at it. And so the gradually introducing them to the task . Um , and we , we also know that they understood the task in that sense, because we can see, or we could see that they were looking at the rabbit when it appeared on the screen. Um, but what we didn't see is that they anticipated where it would appear , um, uh , sort of ahead, ahead in time of the sequence.

Sue:

Yeah. Okay. So the key thing is to, is to implicitly learn this pattern so that you're looking before the bunny has popped up in the right place?

Seb:

Yeah.

Sue:

And do you think people were conscious that they were detecting a pattern and that, you know, those people who, who did kind of start to predict where the bunny was going to appear, do you think they knew?

Seb:

So this is one of the things we sort of discuss in the discussion section in the paper, because , um, again, to some extent, it's, I mean , it's sort of surprising to find autistic children having difficulties with this kind of task because in other similar type types of tasks that require behavior such as pressing a repeated sequence of buttons, for example , uh, we don't find these sorts of differences. Um, and one of the differences to these types of previous experiments is certainly the explicit nature of it. So in this task, in our task , there was no explicit requirement to do anything, as such. And we thought that that was , um, actually useful in relation to sort of mimicking the types of patterns we have to pick up in the environment in terms of language, because we do that passively - just by listening and basically experiencing the world around us. Um , and so in our paper, when we first ran the task with adults, we did actually ask them at the end, whether or not they noticed any pattern. And we actually asked them also to, reproduce , uh, or try to reproduce a pattern even if they hadn't noticed one . Um, and we did find that the people who reported more of an awareness were also the ones that tended to anticipate more , uh, the rabbit. In the study with children, we couldn't really do that because the , the sort of the language skills and general sort of ability levels of the children made it difficult to probe explicit awareness in that sort of sense . Um, and so what a possibility is is that, that the task isn't actually as much of an implicit task as we think it is and that explicit awareness does come in for those children who are actually picking up on the pattern . Um, and that's actually something that we are, we'd like to explore sometime in the future, because there's ways in which you can manipulate the task to make it either more or , uh, more or less difficult to, to sort of acquire more explicit awareness of what's going on.

Sue:

I think that's such an interesting distinction, more broadly in the kind of autism research literature as well, between sort of what people people do spontaneously in the absence of particular directions versus what they are capable of doing if given specific instructions to do something. You know, so we do see this consistently that differences between autistic and non-autistic people narrow or disappear in more directed and instructed tasks. You know, so there's, there's fewer capability differences, but in terms of what autistic people are naturally spontaneously doing when given fairly minimal direction within a task, you know, that's when you see the really big differences. And as you say, of course in the real world, no one is explicitly telling you to pay attention to grammatical patterns in language, or , um, or any number of other kind of behavioural patterns. You know, you, you are just expected to kind of tune in and , and get on with it spontaneously, right? As a child. And so if that's not what you're most tuned into, you're tuned into something else in the environment that's more interesting and motivating for you, you know, then, then that will lead to these big differences. Right? Does that, does that make sense?

Seb:

Yeah, absolutely, yeah. And in fact, Dermot Bowler sort of formulated this in what he calls the task support hypothesis , which gets exactly to that , uh , in the sense that we sometimes see differences between autistic and non-autistic people that disappear when you start introducing certain scaffolds , uh, and sort of make task , uh, requirements, for example, more explicit or something. I think it's also useful in the sense that, you know, that pattern could potentially translate into some useful strategies of supporting children. So in , in relation to language learning, for example, if it's important that we make patterns in the environment more explicit in order to scaffold , um, language acquisition, that's something that's, you know, is not impossible to try and achieve. And in fact, in terms of just in homeschooling time, we've learned a lot about phonics education and things like that in my five-year old . So there's a lot of scaffolding going on already. And , um, and I could imagine ways in which you could change the scaffolds that are provided to more specifically target types of difficulties autistic children have had.

Sue:

Yeah, that's so interesting. We've, we've been working a bit on looking at , um, bilingual autistic people, right? Autistic children who are raised in bilingual households and bilingual and multilingual autistic adults. And one of the things I think is really interesting about that is the way that learning multiple languages forces a more explicit recognition of things like grammar and, you know , patterns in the language than , than if you're just exposed to one language.

Seb:

Interesting.

Sue:

Um , which is , I hadn't thought about it in those terms, but you're right. Like, it , it creates more of a sort of task-focused context for language learning if there's more than one language around in your environment. Um, so just in terms of what we can learn from this, I suppose I'm really interested in the fact that, you know, what you found was more universal among autistic people than you anticipated. So do you think this kind of implicit pattern learning difficulty might be relevant to some other differences between autistic and non-autistic people? Um, you know, do you think it plays a role more kind of broadly? Um, I guess, I mean, I'm sure you're going to say that you'd need more data, but what's your, hunch?

Seb:

Um, I think my hunch is that it probably does, because as you said earlier, so much of what we learn as we grow up is through passive observation, often guided a lot by our parents and people that look after us and things like that. But even if you think about social interactions and the patterns that exist in that context, they're, they're very , um, unpredictable in some sense, but they're also very regular in other senses, to an extent that we, we start to learn, to anticipate other people, for example, that we know well, compared to people that we know less well and things like that. Um, and if there is a , uh , sort of , uh , a more domain general difficulty in acquiring knowledge and skills through passive observation of learning it could have implications for, for, for other aspects as well. And in fact, in our , um, in our paper, although we didn't find , uh, an association between the sort of the repetition learning and indices of language function, we did find the association between , um , anticipation learning. And , uh, I think we had used the seq as an index of , uh , social communication difficulties. Um, we looked at that in response to the suggestion from a reviewer. Uh , so thank you, whoever, whoever reviewed this paper and suggested - that was very useful. Um, and so, so yeah, so, so there's a suggestion there already that this sort of repetition learning difficulty might be related to, to wider aspects of , of what characterizes autism.

Sue:

Yeah. And I guess the other thing that occurs to me is, is a possible link to desire for kind of routines and predictability in the environment. Right? So if there are patterns in the environment, but they're , um, subtle or a bit kind of , um, shoogly - that said , I think that's a Scottish word. They're a bit , um , loose, you know, they're not, they're not super kind of tight patterns. Um, and so they don't, you know, they don't emerge as patterns to autistic kids. For example, you can imagine how that would make you feel that the environment was very unpredictable and you might impose a more explicit pattern on it because the implicit patterns that are there are , are, are not relevant to your priorities or not, not, not, not offering enough structure for you, right? So there could be a link there, do you think?

Seb:

Yeah, I think so. It could well be there's sort of the flip side of that coin in a sense. And if you have a difficulty in picking things up , uh , passively in that way, that you're trying to create that more explicitly in some sets . Um, yeah. That's a very interesting, yeah, very interesting idea.

Sue:

So interesting. It makes me want to go and ask some autistic people about their experience of patterns.

Seb:

Yeah, yeah.

Sue:

So , um, we should draw to a close, but before we do , um, I think probably there will be some early career researchers and students who are listening and so I wondered if you had any , um, you know, wise old owl type guidance for them. Any thoughts that you might like to have , um, uh, been exposed to earlier in your career, I dunno, something like that.

Seb:

Yeah. I th - I think one of the things that , um, that I learned from doing this and that I hope will sort of inspire other people to do more of it is to think of ways in which we can learn more about , uh , those people on the autism spectrum who have the most significant sort of needs and difficulties in terms of language skills, intellectual impairments, and things like that because they are hugely underrepresented. Um, and I'm sure you're aware of this paper that came out a couple of years ago, basically showed that only about 2% of participants in autism studies are described as minimally verbal, uh , even though we know that that makes up around about 30% for the actual autistic population. And so I think we , we've got to do more to , to sort of find out important things about this underrepresented group. Um, and, and what I've learned from this is that it is possible. It's sometimes seen as this thing that's very difficult in terms of, you know , how do you recruit participants and how do you sort of create tasks that are engaging enough and they give meaningful results. And , um, it isn't straightforward, but it can be done. And so , uh, and , and it is actually a lot of fun creating a whack-a-mole type of experiment is not , uh, yeah, not, the worst kind of experiment to put together. Um, so that would be one, one of my most important sort of pieces of wisdom to pass on if you can see it as that.

Sue:

I think it's great. And no, it's definitely a piece of wisdom. And I think, you know, sometimes , um , particularly with the focus quite rightly at the moment on things like kind of reproducibility and rigor in research, we can think that the only way to make a valuable contribution is by having more participants, you know, bigger sample sizes, more power and so on. And, and of course that's important, but, but actually, you know, even in a very saturated literature, like autism research where there's what, like, I dunno , like 10 new papers coming out every week. There there's this uncharted territory, there are these things that we do not understand well enough and that we haven't looked at deeply enough. And so, you know, I think by , um, choosing to kind of, you know , go into those, kind of, challenging areas of, you know, yeah - how can I design an experiment that's going to be accessible to people with a learning disability or, you know , whatever, then , um, you , you can really make a unique contribution, even if you don't have, you know, hundreds of thousands of pounds and, you know, all those kind of endorsers, yeah.

Seb:

And I think it is true also that sometimes, especially in the sort of the cognitive literature in autism, can sometimes be a little bit too inward looking sort of, you know, looking at issues that , um, have come to our attention by, you know , running experiments with individuals with autism and things like that. But sometimes we forget that there's a huge literature outside of the autism field that can actually inform us on what we should be asking and how we should be asking questions , things like that. Um, and , and that's, that's, yeah, I think it's something else that I've learned is just read something other than papers on autism in order to take inspiration of what kinds of questions we should be asking and how we should be maybe thinking about things.

Sue:

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah I think that's great advice.

Seb:

Problem is there's too much to read . It's impossible to keep up! It's impossible to keep up with the literature.

Sue:

[laughs] Yeah, it's incredibly difficult, isn't it? But yeah , I did a chapter a little while ago , um, where we were looking at technology research and we looked at three groups: autism and ADHD and developmental language disorder. And what was so interesting was the way that there was research happening on technology with each of those groups, but they were asking such different questions each time. And actually you could do so much just saying: "here's a question that's been asked with, with kids with ADHD. Let's try that one with autism. And then let's try this autism question with kids with developmental language disorder" and so on.

Seb:

Absolutely.

Sue:

I mean, it's. Yeah. Yeah. Well, thank you so much for your time, Seb and double thank you because actually, listeners, this is our second recording. The first one didn't record properly! [laughs] So I'm particularly grateful to Seb. Um, for anyone who's listening, you'll be able to find out more about this work by following the links in the podcast description in your app, wherever you're listening and also on our Buzzsprout feed. And , um, for now just thank you so much, Seb, have a great rest of your day!

Seb:

It was an absolute pleasure. Thank you very much.

Sue:

Thank you!

Outro:

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