A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Summer, 2022 | Number 3, Volume 36

New approach may improve learning, generalization in ASD

A new study from researchers in Israel suggests that a technique based on “memory flashes” may speed learning for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and enhance generalization of learned skills to new settings. 

Study coauthor Nitzan Censor says, “In my laboratory we focus on the study of learning in humans, and already today we know that a large part of learning does not happen in formal training settings but afterwards, in processes of assimilation and reinforcement of memory that occur ‘offline;’ for example, when our brain is asleep. However, standard teaching methods still advocate an approach where longer practice equals better learning: If you want to play the piano, you should practice playing the piano for many hours every day until the playing becomes second nature to you. We have identified an alternative learning mechanism that uses ‘memory flashes’—a brief exposure to a task that has already been learned—in order to assimilate and generalize skill developed.” 

In the laboratory’s new study, led by Shira Klorfeld-Auslender, the researchers asked participants to perform a visual task (for example, identifying the direction of lines that appeared briefly on a computer screen). Of the participants, 13 had ASD and 10 were neurotypical controls. 

Rather than performing the task for long stretches of time each day, both groups learned the task on the first day and then participated in three sessions, conducted two days apart, in which only five brief trials were conducted per session. “Remarkably,” the researchers say, “individuals with ASD improved their visual discrimination ability in the task substantially, demonstrating successful learning.” The magnitude of improvement was similar for participants with ASD and neurotypical controls. 

Additionally, the researchers say, participants with ASD were able to generalize their learning to other situations with a high degree of success. “This generalization test following reactivation learning was important,” the researchers say, “since when a similar cohort of age- and gender-matched ASD subjects was tested with the same task but under extensive-learning conditions, generalization failed.” 

The researchers also tested a separate group of individuals with ASD to see if the “memory flashes” were an important part of learning. They found that participants who underwent the original training but not the memory reactivations did not exhibit significant learning or generalization. 

The researchers note that standard multiple-repetition learning is time-consuming and often results in overly specific learning, limiting generalization. In contrast, Censor says, their findings “could pave the way for more meaningful approaches to learning for people with autism, in a wide variety of tasks.”


Citations

“A distinct route for efficient learning and generalization in autism,” Shira Klorfeld-Auslender, Yaniv Paz, Ilana Shinder, Jonathan Rosenblatt, Ilan Dinstein, and Nitzan Censor, Current Biology, Vol. 32, July 25, 2022, pp. 3203-3209. Address: Nitzan Censor, School of Psychological Sciences, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel, [email protected]

—and—

 “A new learning method could help people with autism improve visual perception capabilities,” news release, Tel Aviv University, August 1, 2022