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People on the autistic spectrum can ‘take in’ more sounds at any given moment, compared to non-autistic people, according to new research from UCL.

The Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE) at UCL have recently published findings which identify people with Autism have increased capacity for auditory processing. These findings improve our understanding as to why people with Autism have increased difficulty following speech in background noise. The recent study found that people with autism have improved performance when trying to notice a target noise amongst other noise, as well as being prone to noticing irrelevant background information that others cannot.

These findings might explain why some tasks are easier for autistic people (e.g. picking out a melody from a piece of music), but other tasks are more difficult (e.g. staying focused on a teacher during a school lesson). It also suggests that autistic people have an increased capacity to take in sounds, relative to non-autistic people, rather than an inability to filter out irrelevant sounds.

“This increased capacity may offer an explanation for the auditory superiorities seen in autism, such as heightened pitch detection: if you can take in more information, then you can perform many tasks more efficiently. However, somewhat counterintuitively, this same ‘skill’ could result in the sensory overload that is often reported in autism – an issue which can be very distressing, and subsequently interfere with social communication,” explained lead author Dr Anna Remington (UCL Institute of Education).

“Understanding that differences in autistic attention might be due to this extra capacity, rather than an inability to filter out irrelevant information, can change the way we understand the condition and how we might intervene to help those who are struggling.”

The researchers suggest that to reduce unwanted distraction, autistic people need to fill their extra capacity with information that will be beneficial, rather than interfere with the task at hand. For example, it might be helpful to listen to music while reading. The findings challenge the common view that tasks and stimuli should be simplified for autistic children in schools, although care should still be taken to avoid a sensory overload

Click here if you’d like to know more about how autism affects hearing!