A learning-style theory for understanding autistic behaviors

Ning Qian and Richard M. Lipkin, Froniters in Human Neuroscience, 2011, 5:77. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2011.00077.
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Understanding autism's ever-expanding array of behaviors, from sensation to cognition, is a major challenge. We posit that autistic and typically-developing brains implement different algorithms that are better suited to learn, represent, and process different tasks; consequently, they develop different interests and behaviors. Computationally, a continuum of algorithms exists, from lookup-table (LUT) learning, which aims to store experiences precisely, to interpolation (INT) learning, which focuses on extracting underlying statistical structure (regularities) from experiences. We hypothesize that autistic and typical brains, respectively, are biased toward LUT and INT learning, in low and high dimensional feature spaces, possibly because of their narrow and broad tuning functions. The LUT style is good at learning relationships that are local, precise, rigid, and contain little regularity for generalization (e.g., the name-number association in a phonebook). However, it is poor at learning relationships that are context dependent, noisy, flexible, and do contain regularities for generalization (e.g., associations between gaze direction and intention, language and meaning, sensory input and interpretation, motor-control signal and movement, and social situation and proper response). The LUT style poorly compresses information, resulting in inefficiency, sensory overload (overwhelm), restricted interests, and resistance to change. It also leads to poor prediction and anticipation, frequent surprises and over-reaction (hyper-sensitivity), impaired attentional selection and switching, concreteness, strong local focus, weak adaptation, and superior and inferior performances on simple and complex tasks. The spectrum nature of autism can be explained by different degrees of LUT learning among different individuals, and in different systems of the same individual. Our theory suggests that therapy should focus on training autistic LUT algorithm to learn regularities.

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