News Release

Reduced flexible behavior in autistic individuals is driven by less optimal learning

Peer-Reviewed Publication


Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) show reduced flexible behavior on a probabilistic reversal learning task, underpinned by less optimal learning within each developmental stage, according to a study published October 27 in the open-access journal PLOS Biology by Daisy Crawley of King's College London and Lei Zhang of University of Vienna, and colleagues. As noted by the authors, these findings provide novel insights into reduced flexible behavior in relation to clinical symptoms in ASD.

Flexible behavior requires learning from feedback to guide decisions, and adapting responses when such feedback changes. Studies of neurotypical individuals show that the cognitive processes underlying flexible behavior and reinforcement learning change as people pass through childhood and adolescence into adulthood. Despite the link often made between inflexible behavior and restricted, repetitive behavior - a core feature of ASD - evidence has been mixed and it has not been clear how this behavior changes developmentally in autistic individuals. To address this question, Crawley, Zhang and colleagues used a developmental approach and examined flexible behavior on a probabilistic reversal learning task in 572 children, adolescents and adults (ASD N=321; typical development, TD; N=251). In probabilistic reversal learning paradigms, participants typically must learn using feedback and adapt their responses when the rule changes to maximize favorable outcomes.

Autistic individuals showed on average more perseveration and less feedback sensitivity than TD individuals, resulting in poorer task performance. Computational modeling revealed that dominant learning mechanisms underpinning flexible behavior differed across developmental stages and reduced flexible behavior in ASD was driven by less optimal learning. In autistic children, perseverative errors were positively related to anxiety symptoms, and in autistic adults, perseveration was positively related to restricted, repetitive behaviors. According to the authors, this study is the first to elucidate a potential learning mechanism by which behavioral rigidity manifests in autistic adults.


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Citation: Crawley D, Zhang L, Jones EJH, Ahmad J, Oakley B, San José Cáceres A, et al. (2020) Modeling flexible behavior in childhood to adulthood shows age-dependent learning mechanisms and less optimal learning in autism in each age group. PLoS Biol 18(10): e3000908.

Funding: This work was supported by funding from EU-AIMS, AIMS-2 TRIALS, the MRC UK, and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King's College London. EU-AIMS receives support from the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) Joint Undertaking (JU) under grant agreement no. 115300, the resources of which are composed of financial contributions from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (grant FP7/2007-2013), from the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations companies' in-kind contributions and from Autism Speaks. AIMS-2 TRIALS received funding from the IMI 2 JU under grant agreement no. 777394, with support from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program and EFPIA, Autism Speaks, Autistica, SFARI, and the Simons Foundation. LZ was supported by the Research Promotion Fund (FFM) for young scientists of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf and Vienna Science and Technology Fund (WWTF VRG13-007). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: I have read the journal's policy and the authors of this manuscript have the following competing interests: ASJC is a consultant for Servier Laboratories and is involved in clinical trials conducted by Servier. The present work is not related to this relationship. JKB has been a consultant to/member of advisory board and/or speaker for Janssen Cilag BV, Eli Lilly, Lundbeck, Shire, F. Hoffman-La Roche, Novartis, Medice, and Servier. CC is a full-time employee of F. Hoffmann La Roche. TC has received research grant support from the Medical Research Council (UK), the National Institute for Health Research, Horizon 20202 and the Innovative Medicines Initiative (European Commission), MQ, Autistica, FP7 (European Commission), the Charles Hawkins Fund, and the Waterloo Foundation. He has served as a consultant to F. Hoffmann-La Roche. He has received royalties from Sage Publications and Guilford Publications. DGMM sits on the Scientific Advisory Board for F. Hoffmann-La Roche and receives an honorarium. The present work is not related to this relationship. There are no other declarations of interest.

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