A recent study offers a novel learning strategy for persons with autism that may speed up the learning process and potentially greatly enhance visual perception abilities.
According to the researchers, enhancing persons with autism’s perceptual capability is frequently difficult, requiring extensive and laborious training in addition to other learning issues that define autism, such as the ability to generalise learning to new settings. The researchers’ new strategy is based on the use of “memory flashes,” which include exposing a person to a previously mastered activity for a few seconds.
In comparison to standard teaching practises that emphasise length and repetition of new skills, the new method demonstrated success in improving both visual perception abilities and generalisation of learning (that is, excelling in a similar task in conditions they have not previously learned) for people with autism.
The research was carried out by PhD student Shira Klorfeld-Auslender and Prof. Nitzan Censor from Tel Aviv University’s School of Psychological Sciences and the Sagol School of Neuroscience, in partnership with Prof. Ilan Dinstein and his colleagues from Ben-Gurion University. The findings were reported in Current Biology.
Prof. Censor explains: “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. ”
The study included roughly 30 high-functioning persons with autism who were challenged to learn a visual task (for example, identifying the direction of lines that appear for a few milliseconds on the screen). Instead of repeating the task for an extended period of time each day, the examinees in the main experimental group mastered the task thoroughly on the first day and were exposed to the visual stimuli for only a few seconds on subsequent days.
Despite studying the task for a short period of time, the research participants’ performance increased dramatically, by around 20-25 percent, equal to multiple-repetition learning and comparable to the successes of persons without autism.
Furthermore, even when presented with a task under novel, unlearned conditions (for example, when the stimulus learned is in a new location), the examinees who learned the memory flash method outperformed those in the control group; that is, they knew how to generalise the skills learned in the first task. The participants’ effectiveness in generalising their learning to new contexts is regarded as crucial, as they are abilities that autistic persons struggle with.
“We have already proven in previous studies that processes of learning assimilation can be improved through flashes of memory,” says Prof. Censor. “We have shown that it does not take prolonged practice time to assimilate the task — it is enough to flash it for a few seconds to stimulate the relevant brain network, and the brain will then assimilate the material on its own. In this case we tested people with autism.
People with autism often have difficulty learning and generalizing repetitive learning, that is, using tools that have also been learned in new tasks. Through short flashes of visual stimulus in the task learned, we were able to produce learning that is identical to repetitive learning in terms of its effectiveness; meaning, we significantly shortened the learning time. The added value is the ability to generalize: the examinees performed a task under new conditions, as if they had fully learned it. ”
.According to Prof. Censor, the new method may have significant potential implications in a wide range of areas. “The new study could pave the way for more meaningful approaches to learning for people with autism, in a wide variety of tasks. In addition, the method may help in rehabilitation after neurological injuries, that is, in training the brain to regenerate the damaged connections, through shorter training. ”