About ShARL

The scope of our research is broad and includes neuroimaging studies aimed at gaining insight into neural and cognitive divergence and applied studies aimed at improving understanding of the lived experience of ASC and genetic syndromes.

By using techniques including psychometric assessments, visual psychophysics, eye-tracking and EEG we aim to further the understanding of the neural underpinnings of behaviour and cognition.

Another important area of our work is applied studies. These studies aim to improve the public and professionals' understanding of neurodiversity, through research that raises awareness and breaks down barriers experienced by autistic individuals and those with genetic syndromes.

ShARL benefits greatly from the input of the local community; in particular those who have generously donated their time to participate in our research studies.

We've learnt a great deal from the speakers at the Distinguished Speakers in Autism Series, and from chatting to attendees after the events. We’re lucky in Sheffield to have great collaborations with local teachers and clinicians who provide very useful insight into our research program, and also to have enthusiastic and hard-working students who want to work with us.

To everybody who has been involved and help us achieve what we’ve achieved so far: thank you.

For many with ASC the world can be an overwhelming place. This is caused in-part by differences in perception and attention which result in hyper-sensitivity to certain types of stimuli, eg noise or visual patterns. This being combined with a reduction in the ability to filter-out irrelevant aspects of the environment can lead to sensory overload.

The research carried out by ShARL focuses on developing a better understanding of perception and attention in those with ASC. This understanding should allow us to identify techniques to harness the strengths afforded by this perceptual style, and reduce the difficulties.

The lab has grown considerably over the last five years, and we are now tackling a range of research topics including

  • variability and heterogeneity in the autism phenotype

  • public perception of ASC

  • social attention in ASC

  • autism in adulthood

  • and markers of neural excitation and inhibition that may represent biomarkers for ASC.

Since 2014 we have also started to investigate the cognitive and behavioural profile of other neurodevelopmental conditions including Sotos syndrome, Russell-Silver syndrome and 16p11.2 deletion and duplication.

The perceptual style that characterises autism, ie increased awareness of the local aspects of a visual environment often at the expense of the more contextually salient aspects of the visual environment, has been well described by previous research and observational- or self-reports.

Ongoing research carried out within ShARL concentrates on establishing the factors, whether they be external, eg cultural, or internal, eg neurological, that lead to this atypical perceptual style. It is hoped that by clearly defining these factors we can move some way towards identifying biomarkers that are unique to autism spectrum conditions.

However, autism is not a homogeneous condition; people with autism can, and do, vary widely in terms of their cognitive abilities and behavioural symptoms.

We are working on classifying this variability and identifying unique neural correlates of the variability. This is a difficult task which requires a lot of data and detailed analysis, but by collaborating with colleagues in the NHS and with the help from many enthusiastic people from local schools for children with and without autism we are making some headway with this work.

Members of ShARL are also interested in how social information is attended to and processed. We have demonstrated that, contrary to popular belief, individuals with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger's syndrome are able to process social information very effectively.

They are able to follow another person's eye-gaze direction with a high degree of accuracy and are often very interested in other people. The key difference lie in how fast this information can be processed. Because individuals with HFA and Asperger's syndrome tend to be a little slower to process social information, this can cause certain types of information to be missed.

We are currently investigating whether similar difficulties are experienced by individuals with sub-clinical autistic traits. We have recently shown that social anxiety and autistic traits are closely linked and are now looking to investigate whether people that experience both social anxiety and autistic traits have particular problems attending to social information.

At ShARL, as well as carrying out laboratory based research, we also believe it is important to base research on real life situations and scenarios.

We are currently working towards understanding how individuals with autism and sub-clinical autistic traits engage in real life social interactions with a view to helping to improve social attention strategies in those who experience difficulties.