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A pineapple in your sock drawer: how surprise is key to unlocking the secrets of autism

A new study has shown how those with autism are more likely to expect the unexpected.

“Imagine opening your sock drawer and finding a pineapple instead. How surprised should you be?”

The question is deceptively difficult to answer, but it is at the heart of Dr Rebecca Lawson’s latest paper on autism in Nature Neuroscience.

Underlying the study is the fact that the brain reacts to environmental changes in ways we never normally consider. So while you may be very surprised to find a pineapple in your sock drawer in normal circumstances, you would be much less so if your seven-year-old nephew was around and causing mayhem.

Previous studies have found that those with autism are often less surprised by things that would normally surprise others, but Lawson’s study is the first to quantify this difference.

Lawson took 24 adults with autism and 25 without, and asked them to react to images on a computer screen of either a house or a face, and classify them accordingly.

During the experiment, the pictures would be preceded by tones of varying pitches which would, with varying degrees of reliability, predict what the subsequent image would be. 

The idea was to create a situation in which each image the participants were shown could be categorised as expected, unexpected or neutral. The scientists could then measure how surprised the participants were by each image, via their reaction times and the dilation of their pupils. 

Using a computational learning model, Lawson found that unlike those without autism who were very surprised by the unexpected images, the adults with autism could be more accurately described as being "mildly surprised by everything".

Overall, the results of the study showed that adults with autism had “an increased tendency to expect the unexpected” and that “adults with more severe symptoms [of autism] tended to be even less surprised”. 

As well as confirming that those with autism are less surprised by the unexpected, the study may have uncovered the neurobiological mechanism underpinning these results. Pupil size is known to be correlated with the release of noradrenaline, and more of this is believed to be secreted when one is surprised. These results suggest that an abnormal noradrenaline system may be the significant factor for why adults with autism have less stable expectations of their environment, as it is "signalling that unexpected things are happening quite readily... more so than in the neurotypical participants [without autism]". 

Lawson is currently in the process of setting up a new lab at the University of Cambridge, where she hopes to expand on her research and develop a clinical tool which may one day help doctors diagnose autism sooner. This could perhaps make the mysteries surrounding the condition a little less surprising. 

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.