Generalization of Learning in Adolescents and Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder
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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a neurodevelopmental disorder, is defined by impairments in reciprocal social interaction, communication, and by the presence of restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities. Although not made explicit in lists of diagnostic criteria, ASD is associated with atypical cognitive processes. Learning represents one aspect of cognition that is atypical in ASD, and atypical learning processes in ASD probably contribute to well-established abnormalities in language and social skill development, and to poor adult outcomes. Of particular interest for the current research is generalization of explicit learning processes, and several prominent theories of cognition and perception in ASD predict that individuals with ASD will have difficulty with generalization. Mixed evidence has been found for both implicit and explicit learning deficits among individuals with ASD. Several studies have provided some evidence of poor generalization in this population, but few have explicitly measured generalization ability in ASD. A novel computerized card task was developed for the purpose of examining learning and generalization. This task required participants to select sets of three cards by applying a complex explicitly defined rule. After demonstration of ability to apply the rule, the stimulus set was switched and participants were required to apply the rule to the new stimuli. Three stimulus switches were made during the task. Twenty-eight participants with ASD and 32 control participants were recruited for the study. All were asked to complete measures of intelligence and executive function in addition to the generalization measure, and a measure of adaptive skills was included for the ASD group. Challenging the conventional assumption that generalization is a weakness for individuals with ASD, no between-group differences in initial ability to learn or ability to generalize the rule were found. The ASD group demonstrated an inferior rate of improvement in performance following one of the stimulus switches, but did not demonstrate generalization impairment. Correlations between learning and generalization measures, IQ, executive functioning, and adaptive skills are considered. Results are interpreted within the context of the literature on learning in ASD, and the potential impact of task complexity and social learning demands are discussed.