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Autistic people can can take in more sounds, new research finds

Behavioral experiments led by researchers from the UCL Institute of Education revealed that people on the autistic spectrum can take in more sounds at any given moment compared to non-autistic people. The scientists say this explains why some tasks are easier for autistic people, while it also results in sensory overload.

Using two behavioral experiments to examine whether an increased capacity for processing sounds in autism could underlie both difficulties and enhanced auditory abilities that are found in the condition, the researchers from the University College London IOE’s Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE)  found autistic people were better at detecting a target sound that was hidden among other sounds, and noticed irrelevant background information more often when listening to a conversation.

The study notes that this might explain why some tasks – like picking out a melody from a piece of music – are easier for people on the autistic spectrum. This also means that others tasks – like focusing on a teacher during a lesson – are more difficult. The results found by researchers also suggest 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.


Lead author of the study Anna Remingto says the increased capacity might offer an explanation for the auditory superiority 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 counter intuitively, 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. Understanding that differences in autistic attention might be due to this extra capacity rather than an inability to filter out irrelevant information that can change the way we understand the condition and how we might intervene to help those who are struggling,” she explained.

According to the study, in order to reduce unwanted distraction, people on the autistic spectrum should fill their extra capacity with information that will be beneficial, rather than interfere with the task at hand.

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.

“While we must not downplay the challenges associated with autism, our study raises awareness of a more positive side to the condition. By promoting the idea that we can harness strengths to improve outcomes, we embrace neurodiversity and undermine the traditional view that autism is only associated with deficits. This is an important message that is currently being championed by many in the autistic community,” added Dr Remington.

The paper “A sound advantage: Increased auditory capacity in autism,” was published on 3 May in Cognition.

John Beckett