Recent studies are challenging our understanding of the condition on two different fronts.

By Shane Cubis

Posted on January 15, 2019

A lifelong developmental condition, autism affects the way a person relates to their environment and their interactions with others. Recently, there’s been some assumption-smashing new research into autism spectrum disorder (ASD): adults with ASD can regonise regret and relief, and girls on the autism spectrum or more likely to be overlooked.

People with autism aren’t unfeeling robots

In the first instance, it seems as though our pop-culture caricature of people with autism as being unable to recognise the emotional motivations of others isn’t strictly accurate. According to a new study from the University of Kent, adults with ASD can recognise regret and relief in others as well as people without the condition.

The new findings have come with the help of new technologies that look at how people react on a neurological level to emotional mismatches in stories they’ve been given to read.

“Our study is unusual in using state-of-the-art eye-tracking methods to test how people understand emotions in real time,” said lead author Professor Heather Ferguson. “We have shown that, contrary to previous research that has highlighted the difficulties adults with autism experience with empathy and perspective-taking, people with autism possess previously overlooked strengths in processing emotions.”

The findings have been lauded by Twitter users.

Girls on the spectrum more likely to go undiagnosed

Secondly, there’s been more of a focus on how girls on the autistic spectrum tend to be overlooked. Autism research has been normed on male groups, based on the symptoms typically identified in boys, so autism in girls is misdiagnosed and even neglected. New research is gearing towards developing new models that are relevant for diagnosis and interventions for girls and women on the spectrum.

Another factor at play is a primarily female tendency towards “social masking”. Broadly speaking, this means from a young age girls are more aware of social groups, and pre-plan skills to make sure they mimic or fit in with peer-group interactions.

Social masking is emotionally taxing for girls on the spectrum, but it means they more easily pass as “normal”, going under the radar diagnostically from a young age. Because typical ASD behaviours are externalised, they’re more obvious and overt in boys of the same age. As such, they’re often not as immediately obvious to teachers and other adults – including parents and medical professionals.

Tracey Stewart’s story, about her daughter Jessica, is a perfect example. She told ABC News , “Not once through all the difficulties she had endured, through the multiple suggested diagnoses and conflicting information received throughout the years, had I considered that Jessica was autistic. However, as the differences of how autism presents in girls were explained to me, I was astonished at all the clues I had missed.”