Welcome to the Autism Collaborative wiki
This page is used by the developers working on Astropolis, an experimental video game that collects neuroscientific data as people play. At the Autism Collaborative we want to share both our findings and our processes with the public because we believe that is the most beneficial for everyone. As such, although this wiki is written primarily for the Astropolis developers, we encourage anyone interested in the project to explore and gain insight into our process for designing and implementing the game.
Integrative studies of perception, attention, and social cognition in autism
Although much progress has been made identifying structural and functional profiles in autism, this work has resulted in a multiplicity of hypotheses targeted at particular brain or cognitive subsystems or levels of analysis; our most vexing problem often is not identifying the observational details, but assembling these details into a coherent theory. The division between social and non-social studies of autism is a case in point. Competing theories have construed autism variously as an exclusively social deficit in "theory of mind," an abnormality of attention and executive function with social and non-social consequences, an atypical weakness in "central coherence," or an enhancement of perceptual function. Although each of these views seems to capture a piece of the truth, a synthesis of all of them will not be possible as long as they continue to be approached as competing rather than synergistic views, as long as their psychological descriptions remain incompletely connected to neurobiological explanations and to clinical impairments, and as long as individual experiments continue to collect data germane to only one theory in isolation.
Embed a suite of psychological experiments within a video game that's fun to play
Perhaps the single most important obstacle to integrative studies of autism is the practical limit on the amount of time that a single experimental subject can reasonably be expected to perform before becoming fatigued. Unfortunately, often the more controlled a stimulus is from the scientist's point of view, the more repetitive and tedious the experiment can seem from the subject's point of view. Behavioural research on autism in recent years has highlighted the importance of motivation, behavioural set, and task instruction in establishing cognitive strategy and determining performance (e.g. Plaisted et al. 1999; Dalton et al. 2005). In light of these considerations, we propose to embed 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 subject plays the game. The practical advantages of such an engaging and ecologically valid format over the usual repetitive blocks of trials are legion. Indeed, varying levels and demands of attentional shifting and multimodal integration are natural in the context of video game play, and psychophysical measures such as dot motion coherence and embedded figures are easily implemented as, for example, the movement of a star field on a view screen and the detection of an adversary in a cluttered environment. In addition, the strategic and adversarial nature of a video game carries natural opportunities to explore higher-level cognitive measures such as comprehension of game-related narratives and social attribution to a computer-generated adversary. The video game format is increasingly being used to acquire simultaneous behavioural and EEG observations in ecologically valid contexts, for example in visuomotor tracking (Smith et al. 1999), air traffic control (Brookings et al. 1996), and military command and control simulations (St John et al. 2002, 2004; Berka et al. 2004). Recent results in human-computer interaction (von Ahn 2006) also point to the power of the game context to establish and to maintain motivation in tasks that otherwise might not seem engaging, and to teach persons with developmental disorders (Golan & Baron-Cohen 2006). Also along these lines, the video game format affords subjects more of a chance to become comfortable with the task before entering the laboratory, minimising the potential confound of state anxiety associated with performance of an unfamiliar task in a testing situation.