Flexible Choice Behaviour in Autism Spectrum Disorder

Written by: Ivy Cho 

With the environment around us continually changing, it is important that our behaviors are flexible in order to respond to these changes. However, a characteristic behavior seen in those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a desire for both behavioral and environmental consistency. The need for consistency has been said to be rooted within the restricted and repetitive behaviors (RRBIs) seen in ASD.

A recent study conducted at the University of Illinois Medical Center investigated the brain correlates of flexible behavior using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), in conjunction with a learning task. Using functional MRI (fMRI), participants between the ages of 7-44 (17 ASD participants and 23 typically developing participants) completed a four-choice learning task.  During the learning task, participants were initially presented with a screen of four identical stimuli. With the four identical stimuli, they were asked to select which stimuli was in the correct location using a button box. Following, to measure behavioral flexibility a “reversal” learning task was presented. As part of the “reversal” learning task, the correct location of the stimulus would change and participants were expected to select the new correct location.  The results of this study found that during the “reversal,” ASD participants showed decreased activity in brain areas important in both decision making and learning.

These findings suggest that the desire for behavioral and environmental consistency may be due to differences in brain regions required in decision making and learning - and ultimately the ability to facilitate flexible behavior. This study provides insight into the underlying brain correlates of RRBIs, particularly important as there are currently limited treatment programs aimed to ameliorate RRBI symptoms in those with ASD.



D'Cruz AM, Mosconi MW, Ragozzino ME, Cook EH, Sweeney JA (2016): Alterations in the Functional Neural Circuitry Supporting Flexible Choice Behavior in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Transl Psychiatry. doi:10.1038/tp.2016.16.