Close to 90% of individuals in the Autism Spectrum have atypical responses and obsessions/ fixations with sensory stimuli. For example, some may enjoy looking at bright lights while some may actively avoid the sound of people scratching their skin. Previous studies have observed these patterns of responses in neurotypical siblings of individuals with Autism, but not in their parents- until recently.
In a research published in Molecular Autism on 3 April 2014, Uljarevic et al. set out to investigate whether parents (specifically, the mothers) of children and adolescents in the Autism Spectrum have unusual reactions to sensory stimuli. The researchers asked fifty mothers to complete the Adolescent and Adult Sensory Profile (AASP) which is a measure of people’s hypo-sensitivity, hyper-sensitivity, sensation-seeking and sensory-avoiding tendencies.
The study’s findings are as follows:
31 out of 50 participants (62%) recognize stimuli slower or weaker than the average population
22 (44%) were found to be hyper-sensitive but were able to tolerate unpleasant stimuli
24 (48%) actively avoid unbearable stimuli
Only 2% of the mothers scored within the ‘average-range‘, i.e. showed ‘normal’ responses to stimuli
Treat these findings with caution
As with every scientific finding, it is important not to get carried away with these findings. They need to be interpreted with caution. Despite having similar patterns of responses to their children with Autism, the participants’ atypical sensory reactions could be due to anxiety. In addition, since this is the first study to investigate the subject in this population with such a small sample size (very few participants), more studies need to be conducted to fully support the findings. Lastly, genetic studies are needed to investigate whether or not genes play a role in atypical sensory reactions in Autism.
If an authority figure told you to harm another person by administering 450v-shocks, would you do it? I hear you say NO. In the light of the nazi regime and it’s horrifying tales, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram set out to find just how much we obey autority figures. In his now classic experiment, he told 40 male participants that they were conducting a study on learning. Each participant took on the role of a teacher. Individually, they asked a ‘student’ (a confederate of the experimenter), who is in another room, a series of questions. If the student fails to give the correct answer, the teachers must administer electric shocks, which increased in intensity as the study progressed. The participants were not aware that the shocks were fake and that the students were only pretending to be hurt.
The students begged to be released once the 300v mark was reached. When the participants asked if they could stop, the ‘experimenter’ (another confederate, wearing a white lab coat who is standing next to the participants), gave these commands:
The experiment requires that you continue
It is absolutely essential that you continue
You have no other choice. You must continue.
Milgram’s findings showed that 26 out of 40 administered the maximum shock, whilst 14 stopped before reaching the highest levels. These findings led Milgram to suggest that most of us are likely to obey any orders due to the presence of an authoritative figure.
Whether it’s Carly Rae Jespen’s Call Me Maybe, Nickelback’s How You Remind Me, or Maroon 5’s Moves Like Jagger, we all had a song or two that has been stuck in our heads for a while and we don’t quite know why. Such an experience is called ‘Earworm’, a term which is a direct translation of the German word ‘Ohrwurm’.It has been found that around 90% of the population have had such an experience at least once a week. Earworms have been found to last between a few minutes to a couple of hours (Beaman & Williams, 2010). Although it is a common experience, around 15% of people claimed that Earworms are ‘disturbing’ and ‘unpleasant’ (Liikkanen, 2008).
WHY DOES IT HAPPEN?
Although there isn’t a definitive theory which can explain why how songs get stuck in our heads, there have been a few suggestions:
Exposure: Some have proposed that songs/tunes are more memorable than others because we’ve listened to them a lot of times. However, a research by Victoria Williamson and her colleagues (Williamson et al., 2011) found that listening to a song is not a necessary pre-requisite for a song ‘worm-into’ our brains. Their findings suggest that being exposed to a stimuli which are (sometimes vaguely) related to a song can induce an Earworm. For instance, reading a number plate with the letters CMM can lead to remembering Call Me Maybe.
Memories: Being in the same place where you’ve heard a song can be enough to trigger an experience.
Mood: Williamson et al.’s findings also suggest that being in the same mood as you were when you first heard a song can also trigger Earworms.
Boredom: The same study have also found that in some cases, Earworms begun when people were bored or in a ‘low-attention state’.
HOW CAN I STOP IT?
Now that we know the possible reasons why an Earworm manifests, we must know of any strategies of stopping it. In a research conducted by Hyman et al. (2012), participants were asked to listen to a variety of songs, from those of the Beatles to current ones like Lady Gaga’s. They then completed a number of different puzzles, with varying difficulties. After these, they were asked to report whether there are any songs that are playing on their heads (and did so again after 24 hours). They found that puzzles which are too easy and too difficult induced the most number of Earworms. The researchers suggested that:
Earworms are manifestations of Zeigarnik Effect, i.e. we only cease to remember things/tasks when they are completed. In other words, a tune lingers in our heads because only a certain part (and not the whole of it) plays in our head. Hence, if we want it to stop, we need to consciously ‘play’ the whole of it.
Also, after we’ve listened to a piece of music, we need to perform an activity that will keep our minds and/or bodies occupied. However, we need to consciously avoid tasks that are too easy or too difficult for us.
HERE ARE SOME EARWORM-INDUCING SONGS FOR YOU:
Beaman CP, & Williams TI (2010). Earworms (‘stuck song syndrome’): Towards a natural history of intrusive thoughts.British Journal of Psychology, 101(4), 637-653.
Hyman, I., Burland, N., Duskin, H., Cook, M., Roy, C., McGrath, J., and Roundhill, R. (2012). Going Gaga: Investigating, Creating, and Manipulating the Song Stuck in My Head. Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI:10.1002/acp.2897
Liikkanen L.A. (2008) Music in everymind: Commonality of involuntary musical imagery. Proceedings of the 10th International Conference of Music Perception and Cognition. Sapporo, Japan.
Williamson, V., Jilka, S., Fry, J., Finkel, S., Mullensiefen, D., and Stewart, L. (2011). How do “earworms” start? Classifying the everyday circumstances of Involuntary Musical ImageryPsychology of Music DOI: 10.1177/0305735611418553
Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), Carter et al. (20120) aimed to find out the difference between the cognitive processes used by children with Autism when making decisions in social situations against those used by ‘Typically Developing (TD) children. Twenty five children (12 with Autism; 13 TD) were shown 32 pictures. In 16 of those, the children were asked to identify whether or not the target person (blonde-haired boy) was doing a bad thing, whilst on the other 16 pictures, the children were asked whether the activity took place outdoors.
Carter et al.’s (2012) findings showed no signficant differences in both groups’ performance on the task. However, the fMRI scans revealed that the social and language brain regions of the children with Autism’s brains showed very little activation in comparison to those of the TD children. The researchers proposed that these findings could indicate that despite the ability of the children with ASD to correctly identify the inappropriate behaviour, they find it difficult to verbally explain why such behaviours are inappropriate.
Carter, E.J., Williams, D.L., Minshew, N.J., & Lehman, J.F. (2012). Is He Being Bad? Social and Language Brain Networks during Social Judgment in Children with Autism. PLoS ONE,; 7 (10): e47241 DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0047241
Last week, BBC 4 aired a documentary wherein child psychologist Laverne Antrobus interviewed researchers in Cardiff and Nottingham Universities about recent neuroscientific research findings about Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD). However instead of focusing mainly on the research findings, the film centered on three cases of ASD- Tony, Jake and Michael. Tony is a teenage boy who is in the severe end of the Autism Spectrum. According to his mother, he is sensitive to a multitude of sensory inputs particularly to sound. He is very fond of youtube videos of cartoons and repeats their dialogues after watching them. Jake is younger than Tony and is on the higher functioning end of the Autism Spectrum. The film showed Jake exhibiting behavioural difficulties such as resistance by shouting at his mother. As it was explained in the film, Jake usually misbehaves at home after school. The third case focused on a 19 year-old Physics student, Michael, who has published a book about metaphors (it should be noted that people with ASD often struggle to understand metaphors).
Having worked with young people with Special Educational Needs for more than 6 years, I observed that professionals (teaching staff, etc.) and students still lack the basic knowledge about what Autism is. Research such as that of Tobias (2009) has also shown that this lack of basic understanding often lead to negative attitudes, and often, bullying, towards individuals with Autism. As a result, I am actively searching for books, documentaries, films and articles which I can recommend to people in order to increase their understanding of ASD. In my opinion, BBC 4’s ‘Growing Children- Autism’ is a good start for people who want to know more about ASD. Here’s why:
It showed the heterogeneity of ASD. Autism is a complex disorder which affects individuals differently (APA, 1994). Francesca Happe recently stated that ‘when you meet one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism’. Books, websites and articles about Autism often define the condition as an impairment of social interaction, imagination and communication. However, in my experience of working with young people with ASD, I can say that individuals affected by the condition can interact with others, have imagination and can communicate, but sometimes not in the way that we are used to. In addition, I have never seen two people with ASD who have the exact same sensitivity; who respond in exactly the same way to stimuli and have the exact same background. Even though BBC 4’s documentary showed only three cases (4 if you include Jake’s brother Zane), it captured the differences between each cases.
It showed how important the families/support networks are to those with ASD. Perhaps the reason why this sticks out to me is due to my knowledge of the ‘Refrigirator Mother Theory’ which states that Autism is the result of bad parenting. Having been around families and carers of people with Autism, I can genuinely say that these families deserve more credit than they normally get. These families/care-givers are the ones who are with the people with ASD more times than teachers and psychologists. They are with them when they eat, sleep, go to the toilet, early in the morning, late at night, during the weekends and school holidays. As I’ve mentioned, the documentary showed how Jake misbehaves towards his mother when he comes home after school. This aggression is often built up at school during the day and is usually vented towards the students’ parents or caregivers- people who are at times, not very well trained at dealing with these behaviours. The documentary also showed how understanding the parents of Jake and Tony are and how their attitudes help these individuals. It should be noted that these parents’ cases can be seen as cries for help since not all parents of people with Autism receive the help and support they need from professionals.
Lastly, it showed that there is a lot of things we don’t know about ASD. I am not denying the fact that Autism research has rapidly moved on over the past decades. However, we still don’t know what causes ASD, as a result, we don’t know how, if possible, to prevent the condition from occuring. I also believe that diagnosis can be improved in the future.
American Psychiatric Association (1994). DSM-IV Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 4th ed. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association.
Tobias, A. (2009). Supporting students with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) at secondary school: a parent and student perspective. Educational Psychology in Practice, 25, 151-165.