Problems With Concept Formation May Be Central in Autism

From my reading and my own experiences, I have developed a theory of autism in which concept formation difficulties is central. I have discussed these things in various posts, including here and here and here. Now there is strong evidence for this theory in some recent research.

According to Zaidel, the new study provides support for the idea that people with autism are highly sensitive to incoming sensory information. Moreover, he suggests, they are predisposed toward relying more highly on external stimulation – with less use of prior knowledge – when interpreting the world around them.

“Our results suggest that people with autism may experience a deficiency in what are known in the scientific literature as Bayesian priors – the ability to draw on existing knowledge to understand what we see and to predict what we will see in the near future,” Zaidel says. “If you’re more heavily weighted toward perceiving the world bottom up – from stimulus to perception – and relying less on rules of thumb from prior knowledge, perception will be both more taxing, and more sensitive to sensory noise.”

In other words, those with autism are taking in information and trying to make sense of that information. If there is a concept available with which to relate the new information, everything is just fine. But if not, it creates confusion and frustration. Imagine being faced with what to you is “new information” all the time. Being presented with new information you don’t really know how to integrate can be frustrating — just ask any student learning new things. Now imagine that your everyday experience is like that.

The farther along the spectrum one is, the more difficult it is to create concepts — and therefore, the more severe the symptoms. It will be hard to verbalize what you cannot fully conceive. Thus language delays in non-Asperger’s autistics. And we must not forget that instincts are concepts with which we are born. Fewer instincts in those with autism would seem to point to a general problem with creating concepts, including those with which we are born.

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