Increased Access to Information, but Not Increased Feedback, Enhances Category Learning in Autism
Objectives: Assess how access to information (sequential vs. simultaneous presentation) and level of feedback (high vs. low intensity) during learning affects the probabilistic categorization performance of autistic and typical children.
Methods: 108 children were tested on one of two probabilistic categorization tasks (Shohamy et al., 2004; Brown et al. 2010). To date, data have been analysed for 11 autistic (age=9.0 years, SD=1.5; WISC-IV PRI=108.0, SD=16.09) and 16 typical (age=9.0 years, SD=1.4, p=1.0; PRI=115.4, SD=12.0, p=0.17) children tested on the feedback task; and for different groups of 16 autistic (age=10.3 years, SD=2.0; PRI=105.9, SD=15.8) and 18 typical (age=9.2 years, SD=1.2, p=0.08; PRI=115.0, SD=11.0, p=0.06) children tested on the presentation task. 14 artificial stimuli varying across 4 dimensions had to be classified into 2 categories based on 5 different probabilities. Each stimulus was probabilistically associated with an outcome. Tasks varied either in information presentation (sequentially, one stimulus at a time vs. simultaneously, all stimuli together) or feedback level (low vs. high intensity nonsocial informative feedback) in the 200-trial learning phase, which was followed by two 70-trial test phases. Test1 used learning-phase stimuli, while Test2 used equivalent but new stimuli requiring generalization of learning.
Results: Preliminary analyses were conducted of test-phase accuracy, reported here as mean number of correctly classified stimuli out of 70. Intensity of feedback (low vs. high) did not affect Test1 accuracy in either group (typical: low=42.2, SD=9.3, high=42.4, SD=7.2; autistic: low=40.0, SD=12.4, high=46.3, SD=9.3), p’s>.05. The same was true for Test2 (typical: low=42.0, SD=12.6, high=44.5, SD=11.4; autistic: low=45.8, SD=10.3, high=46.3, SD=12.0), p’s>.05. However, autistic children’s Test1 accuracy was significantly better when information was presented simultaneously during learning (46.9, SD 5.6) versus sequentially (36.8, SD 8.3, p=.01), while this made no difference in typical children (43.9, SD=8.2 vs. 49.6, SD=7.07, p=.176). In Test2, autistics again benefited from simultaneously (51.7, SD=6.21) versus sequentially (42.4, SD=4.7, p=.01) presented information during learning, with no difference in typical children (40.5, SD=13.2 vs. 48.2, SD=12.6, p=.125). Further analyses are ongoing.
Conclusions: In a probabilistic category learning task, increased access to information enhanced autistic children’s category learning and generalization, while increased feedback had no effect. Our preliminary results suggest the relative non-importance of feedback intensity to autistic learning, and that limiting autistic children to small increments of information, presented one at a time, may impede or undermine their learning. Increasing autistic children’s access to information they can process well should be a priority.