The Autism Collaborative is a group of autism researchers who aim to encourage cooperation rather than competition in the race to discover autism's causes and treatments. We view this effort as a race against time, and not against each other. We pledge to share freely all of our software and other methods, and all of our anonymised experimental data.
Our first cooperative project is Astropolis, a video game designed to combine perceptual, attentional, and social cognitive measures of autistic behaviour. Though each of these domains by itself has been extensively studied, the covariation of autistic cognitive strengths and weaknesses across these domains has remained largely unexamined — principally because individual scientists have collected experimental data relevant only to their own specific social cognitive, perceptual, or attentional theories and hypotheses. Studying these domains in the same people at the same time is important because it can tell us how complex social and communicative abnormalities may arise from simpler antecedents and, eventually, how we might usefully intervene in this developmental process.
Unfortunately, the more controlled and repeatable a stimulus is from a scientist's point of view, the more repetitive and tedious the experiment can seem from the point of view of the person who's serving as the experimental subject. Behavioural research on autism in recent years has highlighted the importance of motivation and behavioural set in establishing cognitive strategy and determining performance: many capabilities that once were assumed to be absent in people with autism are in fact perfectly functional, if only we set up the right circumstances in which to engage these capabilities. In light of these considerations, we are embedding our experimental stimuli in the context of a video game that captures and maintains subjects' interest, transparently collecting behavioural data and synchronising with physiological recording as the player works through the game.
We approach this basic science effort with an eye towards future therapeutic intervention. If we can use the virtual environments of a video game to learn more about how and when autistic perceptual and cognitive resources are engaged, then we can use this same framework to tailor environmental stimuli so as to engage and to develop latent capacities in children with autism. The highly rule-based yet cognitively challenging environment of a video game is an ideal platform for such autism therapies. In addition, our comparisons of autistic and non-autistic siblings give an ability to identify and to differentiate neurophysiological differences associated with familial tendency to autism from neurophysiological differences associated with autism per se, and to suggest how the former may be developmentally translated into the latter. If we can understand how it is that some family members become autistic whilst others do not, we will open the door to targeted interventions. In our view, the best possible outcome of such efforts would be a world in which the unique perceptual strengths that arise in people with autism and their family members are preserved, but combined with intact communicative abilities that will give these individuals a chance to interact with the surrounding social world and to share their unique gifts.