New research could help schools understand why pupils with autism can get distressed while learning.

The UCL Institute of Education (IOE) study asked 33 children with autism and 33 without, aged between six and 13-years-old, to judge the average direction of a set of dots on a computer screen.

It found children with autism were better at working out the direction of dots when each one moved in different directions.

However they struggled when having to ignore dots moving in random directions.

Experts say this suggests autistic children may not always know which information to combine and which to ignore – leading to sensory overload.

Dr Liz Pellicano, director of the IOE’s Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE) said: “We know that autistic people see the world differently compared with non-autistic people.

“But exactly why these differences occur have so far been unclear. Our new research suggests that children with autism excel at integrating moving information – a skill that might be beneficial in some circumstances but, in others, might lead to the processing of too much unfiltered information, which could lead to distress.”

Autism is a developmental condition that affects around one in 70 children.

Dr Catherine Manning, a researcher at the University of Oxford, added: “The ability to combine motion information helps us make sense of what we see, for example by allowing us to see the overall movement of a shoal of fish.

“However, it is also important to know what information needs to be filtered out.  An increased combination of motion information may in some way ‘overload’ a child with autism in a dynamic world.”

The full study is published today in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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