Some with autism have long stood out for their savant-like abilities, but new research suggests that even those without such obvious strengths have extraordinary talent as compared to typically developing individuals.

People with autism are significantly better at processing large amounts of information and are more skilled at identifying critical details, British researchers found in a study published this week in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

The finding could help explain why many with autism are able to excel in detail-oriented fields like information technology, they said.

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For the study, a group of 16 adults with autism and 16 typically developing individuals were asked to identify certain letters from among a group of letters that were flashed on a screen. Meanwhile, participants were also asked to notice a gray shape that sometimes appeared on the screen as well.

When only a few letters were displayed, all of the study participants were able to complete the task. But as the number of letters increased, the typically developing adults exhibited greater difficulty spotting the relevant shapes and letters, while those with autism were still able to identify the critical pieces of information.

“People with autism have higher perceptual capacity compared to the typical population,” said Nilli Lavie, a professor of psychology and brain sciences at University College London who worked on the study. “This can only be seen once the task becomes more demanding, with more information to process. In the more challenging task conditions, people with autism are able to perceive significantly more information than the typical adult.”

But these skills can also be a hindrance at times, the researchers said. The heightened perceptual abilities that individuals with autism have can also make them more sensitive to distractions like lights or sounds that others are able to tune out.

“People who have higher perceptual capacity are able to process more information from a scene, but this may also include some irrelevant information which they may find harder to ignore. Our research suggests autism does not involve a distractibility deficit but rather an information processing advantage,” Lavie said.

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