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While doctors and families long for a better understanding of the disease, they also want to find behavioral treatments that can help autistic kids function better in day-to-day activities. To that end, Pawan Sinha, another neuroscience professor at MIT, plans to develop a visual training program for autistic children.

Researchers theorize that autistic children have social problems because they can’t read faces well. For instance, they have difficulty telling if an emotional face is angry or sad. But Sinha says their deficit may actually be much broader – an autistic child may not be able to integrate different visual cues into a comprehensive whole. “Parents say their child tends to lose the forest for the trees, to become fixated on specific details,” says Sinha. “We still need to do a more comprehensive study of this.”

Previously, Sinha studied children in India with curable blindness. When they first learned to see, the children showed problems reminiscent of the deficits in autism, he says. For example, when shown a picture of two superimposed squares, they saw only a group of lines. While these Indian children eventually learned to see squares as objects, children with autism are unable to learn such strategies naturally, says Sinha.

Sinha’s group will use a newly developed testing program to better characterize these visual problems. In the exercise, a blurry image becomes progressively clearer as the children try to rapidly guess the identity of the picture. To recognize a degraded object, the subjects must look at the whole image. Sinha assumes that autistic children will have trouble with this task because they tend to look at only local parts of a picture.

Ultimately, the researchers plan to use the testing program for teaching autistic children how to better integrate visual cues. Although the technique can improve normal adults’ skills in a matter of weeks, it’s unclear how much training autistics kids will require.

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