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A scientist with autism has used his own experiences to aid the completion of a study which challenges some of the most commonly-held beliefs about the condition.

Dr James Cusack, from the University of Aberdeen, argues that generalisations about people with autism being poorer at interpreting gestures and body language may be exaggerated and could be overcome by developing their ability to pay attention to signals in their brain which may otherwise go unnoticed.

The findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, are the result of a four-year study conducted with a group of adolescents with autism from Aberdeen. The team believe the results could bring scientists closer to understanding the condition, and unlock the potential of others with the disability.

Those taking part in the study were shown a series of human action sequences, created using technology which reduces figures to a series of dots, and then asked to distinguish between similar actions such as dancing and fighting – something which it is commonly believed those with autism have greater difficulty in determining.The results showed that their ability to detect these subtle differences was significantly higher than that identified by previous research.

The findings parallel developments within Dr Cusack’s own life by demonstrating that the impairment in those with autism could potentially be overcome if they could be directed to interpret what they see more effectively.

Dr Cusack was told at the age of 12 that he may need residential care for the rest of his life to support his individual needs. Instead, he received a targeted education at a specialist autism centre and he went on to excel first at school and then at university.

Dr Cusack’s doctoral project was jointly supervised by Dr Peter Neri, a leading visual scientist from the University of Aberdeen, and Dr Justin Williams, a psychiatrist who pioneered influential theories of autism, also based at the University. The researchers were supported by the Medical Research Council and the Royal Society.

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