Autistic individuals less startled by the unexpected

in That Makes Sense by

Autism, originating from the Greek word ‘autos’ meaning self was coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler to describe a subset of schizophrenic patients who were particularly self-absorbed and socially withdrawn. Currently, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), refers to a neurodevelopmental condition with core symptoms of social disinterest, communication deficits, and overly-focused or repetitive behavior. People with ASD are intolerant to change and crave routineness. In this context, it is interesting to note that adults with ASD are less surprised by the unexpected!



Expectations and beliefs pretty much drive the way we function and respond to the world.

Any kind of violation in our belief systems normally throws us off guard, and a frequent violation would force us to rethink and amend our expectations. For example, you enter your room and notice scribbles all over the walls. Your normal reaction would probably be that of surprise, but if you have kids around, you update your expectations accordingly. In ASD adults, this whole update mechanism appears to be compromised. Through a battery of tests and computational modeling, a recent study published in Nature Neuroscience showed that ASD individuals overestimate the volatility of their sensory environments. They have an impaired ability to learn from changes and subsequently build/ update expectations. The lesser the degree of surprise to sudden changes, the higher is the disorder’s severity. Behavior, in ASD cases, is driven more by senses than prior expectations or beliefs – something that normal individuals would exhibit only in unstable situations. In other words, autistic individuals act as they view and are less guided by higher order cognitive or social processes like learning and building stable expectations. This could also explain their predisposition to sensory overload and enhanced perceptual functioning.

One might think that being less susceptible to expectations and beliefs is great in a dynamic, ever-evolving world. On the contrary, the inability to build a stable belief system could be a problem – one of them being impaired viewing and interacting with others, a key ASD trait. Interestingly, the study revealed a connection between communication difficulties and building visual expectations as well; further research is necessary to understand this relationship better. Thus, this study puts quite a few points about ASD in perspective as represented by the diagram below.


  1. Rebecca P Lawson, Christoph Mathys, Geraint Rees. Adults with autism overestimate the volatility of the sensory environmentNature Neuroscience, 2017; DOI: 1038/nn.4615
  3. Mukerji Cora, Mottron Laurent, McPartland James C. Enhanced Perceptual Functioning. Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders, 2013

Featured image: Youtube


About the author:

 Saikata Sengupta is currently pursuing her Ph.D. from Department of Neurology at Friedrich Schiller University, Germany. You can follow her on Linkedin or Twitter

Editors: Sushama Sivakumar, pHD

Manoja Eswara, Ph.D.

Sushama Sivakumar did her Ph.D. from University of Oklahoma Health Sci. Ctr., USA and is currently doing her postdoctoral research work at UT Southwestern medical center, USA.

Manoja Eswara did her Ph. D. from University of Guelph, Canada and is currently doing her postdoctoral fellowship in Cancer Epigenetics at Lunenfeld Tanenbaum Research Institute, Toronto, Canada.

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