Repetitive drills are often used to help individuals with autism learn new skills, but new research suggests that this approach may do more harm than good.

Rather than enhance their abilities, training those on the spectrum to follow predictable patterns may actually inhibit their ability to apply new skills in the real world, according to findings published online this month in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

For the study, researchers measured speed and accuracy as a group of adults — some typically-developing and some with high-functioning autism — looked for three diagonal bars surrounded by horizontal lines on a computer screen. The activity was repeated daily over eight days, with the bars remaining in the same location on the screen for the first four days before they were moved to a second location for the remaining time.

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During the first interval, all of the adults studied improved consistently. After the location of the bars moved, however, the typically-developing individuals adjusted and saw steady improvement while those with autism struggled to adapt. The adults on the spectrum were unable to learn the second location as well as the first and did not see improvement in the last four days of the experiment, the study found.

“It’s like they showed ‘hyperspecificity’ of learning — their learning became fixed and inflexible — since learning the first location adversely influenced their ability to learn the second instance,” said Hila Harris of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel who led the study.

Subsequently, the researchers turned to a separate set of adults with autism and a control group to participate. Rather than show the diagonal bars in the same place consistently during the first four days, however, the researchers intermittently included screens without any diagonal bars.

Ultimately, when the location of the bars changed for the final four days of the test, this second group of adults with autism was able to adapt to learn the new pattern.

“Our conclusion is that breaks in repetition allow the visual system some time to rest and allow autistic individuals to learn efficiently and to then generalize,” said David Heeger of New York University who worked on the study. “Repeated stimulation leads to sensory adaptation which interferes with learning and makes learning specific to the adapted conditions. Without adaptation, learning is more efficient and can be generalized.”

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