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Study shows short refresher may help people with ASD learn faster than rote practice

Tel Aviv University-led research suggests that adaptable skills, often hard to master for people with autism, may be achieved using speedy ‘memory flashes’

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative image: a child with autism mastering the skill of straying up blocks. Adaptable skills can prove challenging for some people with autism. (KatarzynaBialasiewicz via iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image: a child with autism mastering the skill of straying up blocks. Adaptable skills can prove challenging for some people with autism. (KatarzynaBialasiewicz via iStock by Getty Images)

New Israeli research may help people with autism gather more adaptable skills — by trying less hard to master them.

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often have more difficulty than others in applying skills they have learned to new situations and environments, and need to invest much time in developing the ability to do so.

According to Prof. Nitzan Censor at Tel Aviv University, though, so-called “memory flashes,” brief visual reminders instead of long periods of practice, may have particular potential to help people with autism adapt new knowledge.

Censor, his lab and Ben Gurion University ASD expert Prof. Ilan Dinstein recently published data in the journal Current Biology showing that short refreshers helped volunteers with ASD master new skills up to 30 percent faster than those who used more conventional learning methods.

“Our new study could pave the way for more meaningful approaches to learning for people with autism, in a wide variety of tasks,” said Censor.

Censor’s research has focused heavily on how much learning actually takes place when people think they are “switched off” — for example, assimilating information long after a lecture, when sleeping.

In 2017 he published peer-reviewed research challenging the “practice makes perfect” ethos of learning, suggesting that the human brain quickly grasps new information or skills, and sometimes just needs very brief visual reminders instead of long periods of practice.

The new research looks at what happens when the memory flash method is utilized by people with ASD.

A boy holding colorful puzzle heart in front of his face to raise awareness for World Autism Day. (iStock via Getty Images)

The peer-reviewed study involved asking high-functioning adults with ASD to look at the center of a screen. They were shown a complex image of shapes and lines on one part of the screen, and then asked a detailed question related to its appearance. Solving subsequent images in other parts of the screen involves generalizing the knowledge that was acquired.

“This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s actually using a different part of the visual processing ability,” Censor explained.

To test whether the memory flashes helped with the puzzles, participants underwent a long period of initial training. Some were then given three very quick refresher sessions, with only a few seconds to practice solving the images.

Prof. Nitzan Censor (courtesy of Tel Aviv University)

“What we did is to create an underlying brain experience and then just ignite or prompt the brain’s network,” Censor explained.

The team found that those who got the refresher were 20 percent to 30% better at adapting the newly-acquired skills to solve images in changing locations on the screen than those who just did the initial training.

Other studies have shown the same level of improvement in people with ASD, but only after hours of extra practice.

“Normally when people learn a task, they practice hundreds of times every day,” said Censor. “This group performed only five trials of the task in each session, which lasted for 10 seconds in total, instead of carrying out the task hundreds of times, yet showed greater adaptability.”

He said the research could be explored for a range of skills that involve generalizing a specific skill or concept, even including playing musical instruments or dance.

“We could test whether this is relevant for teaching people with ASD motor skills, social skills, skills in the classroom, and other skills,” he said. “It could be very relevant for educational studies.”

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