Enhanced Perceptual Capacity in the Classroom: Harnessing Cognitive Strengths to Promote Learning

Friday, May 12, 2017: 2:21 PM
Yerba Buena 8 (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
S. O'Brien1, M. Hanley2, D. M. Riby2, J. Swettenham3 and A. Remington1, (1)Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE), UCL Institute of Education, University College London, London, United Kingdom, (2)Department of Psychology, Durham University, Durham, United Kingdom, (3)University College London, London, UNITED KINGDOM

Research has demonstrated evidence for increased perceptual capacity in autism: autistic children and adults can process more information at any given time than neurotypical individuals. In tasks with high perceptual load (large amount of task-relevant information), this additional capacity is beneficial, leading to superior performance. When perceptual load is low, however, spare capacity processes task-irrelevant information, leading to increased distractibility. In this way, increased perceptual capacity can account for both superiorities and deficits seen in the condition. Reframing autistic attentional behaviour in terms of increased capacity rather than a filtering deficit has implications for autism interventions, yet these have not been investigated.


This study aimed to explore the implications of increased capacity in educational settings. Currently, classrooms for autistic children tend to have minimal stimuli on the walls and tasks are often simplified. Our somewhat counterintuitive prediction is that increasing the amount of relevant information in an educational task would improve learning outcomes: the extra perceptual capacity could be used by the child for task-relevant processing rather than irrelevant distractions. The proposed project aimed to test this, investigating whether the higher perceptual capacity of autistic children can be indeed be capitalised on to improve learning in the classroom.


73 children (6-14 years, 23 autistic, 50 neurotypical, matched on age and non-verbal IQ) performed a ‘real-world’ attention task. Participants watched a five-minute video of a teacher talking about an Irish myth or legend and were asked to remember as much as they could. The background behind the teacher which was either a) blank b) filled with relevant pictures (related to story being told) or c) filled with irrelevant pictures (e.g. solar system poster, number charts). At the end of the video, children were asked questions about aspects of the story, but also – unexpectedly - about items in the background. Each child watched three videos: one from each condition.


For both groups, learning outcomes (e.g. amount recalled from verbal story) were better in the high load, task-relevant background condition than when there was no background information (p < .001). Like their typical peers, autistic children benefitted from the additional information; in this case, simplifying the task hindered learning rather than facilitated it.

In accordance with increased perceptual capacity, we also found that autistic children processed more irrelevant background information than neurotypical children: scoring significantly higher when asked about the background images (p = .039). Given that the level of story learning was equivalent between the two groups, we conclude that irrelevant background items were processed as well as central task items, not instead of them.


Our findings suggest that, at least in some situations, increasing the amount of task-relevant information of an educational task improves learning outcomes for autistic children. We hope this is the starting point of a line of applied research based on the idea of increased perceptual capacity in autism, which may inform the creation of new learning interventions for children on the spectrum, and have a significant impact on their educational success.