People with Autism Have a 'Different Sense of Self,' Study Finds

skin face woman getty stock
A little sun can allow our skin to absorb vitamin D. Getty Images

People with autism have a different sense of self when compared to those without the condition, scientists believe. The developmental disability which affects around one in 59 children in the U.S. is characterized by problems with communication, emotional and social skills.

The cause is unknown, and treatment generally helps individuals to learn skills such as walking or communicating, depending on their needs.

The authors of the new study think the brains of people with autism process signals from their bodies differently to "neurotypical individuals"—the term used to describe those who don't have the condition.

For their study, a team of scientists recruited 51 adults: 22 who had autism, and 29 who didn't. The participants took part in an out-of-body-experience illusion where they wore a headset and were shown a view of a virtual version of their body.

They underwent tests of their perception, including being stroked in and out of sync with touches to their virtual body. After each test, the participants closed their eyes and were gradually guided backwards by 1.5 meters, before moving back to their original spot.

Dr. Jane Aspell, senior study author and Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Neuroscience at Anglia Ruskin University told Newsweek the team was surprised that the illusion did not work in those with autism.

"We expected it to be weaker but not absent," she said of the research published in the journal Autism. "Autism has long been described as a 'disorder of self' because of differences in how some people with autism use personal pronouns and their difficulties accessing personal memories and in being emotionally self-aware," Aspell said.

"This is the first study to show that differences in self are also present at a more fundamental level—the level of the bodily self. Our bodily self is surprisingly easy to manipulate and perturb by tricking the brain with conflicting information about the body, in this case by using video-based virtual reality," she explained.

This is because the brain is constantly computing what is self and what is not-self; where the boundary between self and other lies, she said.

"In people with autism this illusion has no effect. The boundary between self and the external world is not the skin—there is a 'protective bubble' around the body called the peripersonal space.

"We measured the size of this and found that it is smaller in people with autism and the boundary between self and other is sharper. This inflexibility in the bodily self and the sharper boundary between self and other may explain some of the social difficulties that people with autism have—they are perhaps less able to make 'links' between and self and others because their self is more 'fixed.'"

Aspell hopes the research will inspire other scientists to investigate whether peripersonal space can be tweaked in people with autism, similarly to how it can be in neurotypical people. This could help people with autism empathise with others, she said.

Professor Bhismadev Chakrabarti, research director of the Centre for Autism at the University of Reading who was not involved in the study, told Newsweek: "The study confirms what we have suspected for a while, in that the flexibility of self representations might be atypical in autism.

"We had previously observed similar effects with self-voice representations, and it is exciting to note that a similar picture is emerging from the visual modality as well. Traditional accounts of autism have focussed on atypical representation of the 'other' (e.g. difficulty in reading other's emotions). Recent work such as this is fine-tuning the question, by systematically examining the boundaries between self and other."

However, Chakrabarti pointed out the test where participants walked backwards "requires significant motor control."

"Given that individuals with autism often have motor control atypicalities, it is not clear whether the observed lack of difference between the two experimental conditions is driven by a floor effect due to such motor control atypicalities." He argued this could have been factored into the experiements.

He concluded: "This is fundamental research exploring the self-other boundary and its flexibility. It would be premature to think of this leading to treatments in the near future."