Impaired classical conditioning in persons with autism spectrum disorders
Previous research has indicated that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have difficulty with implicit learning; learning that occurs unconsciously and without intention. The present study utilized a classical fear conditioning paradigm to examine associative learning in individuals with ASD, which can be considered to be a simple form of implicit learning. Fifteen individuals diagnosed with ASD and 16 age, gender, and IQ-matched individuals with typical development participated in this study. Both participants with ASD and typical development were presented with a series of colors and sounds paired with an aversive loud noise while skin conductance responses (SCRs) were recorded. Following this task, an explicit memory test probed participants' awareness of the learning contingencies. Results from this study found that individuals with ASD demonstrate a general impairment in associative learning compared to individuals with typical development. Additionally, greater explicit awareness of the learning contingencies was related to greater associative learning in individuals with ASD. Implications for theories regarding associative and implicit learning impairments in ASD, such as the underconnectivity theory of autism and the Learning Compensation model are discussed.