People with autism have an altered sense of self, which may explain some of the differences shown in social functioning, a recent study suggests.
The research found that, unlike neurotypical participants, people with autism do not experience the ‘full body illusion’. This is a test that causes people to experience their self as being located outside of their body and to identify with their own virtual ‘avatar’ viewed through virtual reality goggles.
The study involved a group of 51 adults, involved a group of 51 adults, half of them with and half of them without autism.
The scientists also measured the size of the participants’ peripersonal space. This is the area of space directly around our body which the brain treats in a special way as it enables us to interact with the external world. They found that this area of space, that defines the boundaries of self, is smaller in people with autism.
A smaller peripersonal space may explain certain behaviours sometimes seen in individuals with autism, such as approaching others more closely than social norms prescribe, or having difficulty considering communications coming from outside their personal space as being directed towards them.
“For a long time autism has been considered a disorder of the self as some people with autism have difficulties accessing memories about themselves and using personal pronouns such as ‘me’ and ‘I’,” said Cari-lene Mul, lead researcher of the study published in the Journal of Autism.
“We wanted to find out whether arguably more fundamental aspects of the self – the feeling that your body belongs to you and that your self is located within it – might be altered in people with autism,” Mul explained.
According to Jane Aspell, senior author of the study, the findings of our study show that the ‘bodily’ self is less flexible in people with autism and their brains may combine sensory information about their bodies in a different way. These differences in self may relate to, and partly explain, differences in self-processing and problems with social functioning, including the ability to empathise with others.