Visual skill learning is the process of improving responses to surrounding visual stimuli.1 For individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), efficient skill learning may be especially valuable due to potential difficulties with sensory processing2 and challenges in adjusting flexibly to changing environments.3,4 Standard skill learning protocols require extensive practice with multiple stimulus repetitions,5–7 which may be difficult for individuals with ASD and create abnormally specific learning with poor ability to generalize.4 Motivated by findings indicating that brief memory reactivations can facilitate skill learning,8,9 we hypothesized that reactivation learning with few stimulus repetitions will enable efficient learning in individuals with ASD, similar to their learning with standard extensive practice protocols used in previous studies.4,10,11 We further hypothesized that in contrast to experience-dependent plasticity often resulting in specificity, reactivation-induced learning would enable generalization patterns in ASD. To test our hypotheses, high-functioning adults with ASD underwent brief reactivations of an encoded visual learning task, consisting of only 5 trials each instead of hundreds. Remarkably, individuals with ASD improved their visual discrimination ability in the task substantially, demonstrating successful learning. Furthermore, individuals with ASD generalized learning to an untrained visual location, indicating a unique benefit of reactivation learning mechanisms for ASD individuals. Finally, an additional experiment showed that without memory reactivations ASD subjects did not demonstrate efficient learning and generalization patterns. Taken together, the results provide proof-of-concept evidence supporting a distinct route for efficient visual learning and generalization in ASD, which may be beneficial for skill learning in other sensory and motor domains.
- perceptual learning