Our research focusses on behaviour and cognition of individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder. Individuals with ASD have difficulties in social interaction and communication, and show repetitive behaviour and restricted interests. There are three important cognitive theories regarding ASD.
1) Executive Functioning (EF)
EFs are cognitive functions that are needed to adapt behaviour to environmental circumstances, such as working memory (the ability to keep information in mind, process the information, and use it to adapt behaviour), cognitive flexibility (the ability to switch rapidly between different behaviours), inhibition (the ability to stop behaviour if needed), and planning (the ability to plan behaviour). The EF theory postulates that individuals with ASD have deficits in these functions. However, it appears that there is not one specific EF profile in ASD, and there are many individual differences.
2) Theory of Mind (ToM)
Theory of Mind is the ability to understand one’s own and other’s mind, and to understand that others have their own thoughts, feelings, and goals. The ToM theory postulates that individuals with ASD have a less well-developed ToM as compared to non-autistic individuals.
3) Weak Central Coherence (WCC)
The WCC theory postulates that individuals with ASD focus more on details and focus less on, or are less well able to perceive, the bigger picture.
Although all these theories have their merits, none of them appears to explain ASD completely. Although the main focus of our research is the EF theory, we also focus on the other two cognitive theories.
We study the relation between autism characteristics (in the general population and in individuals with ASD), and particular behaviour or particular abilities. For example, the relation between ASD characteristics and working memory problems, or ASD characteristics and attention to detail (related to WCC). We use questionnaire data (self-report and proxy-report) to measure behaviour or deficits as experienced in daily life, and cognitive tasks to measure specific functions in a more isolated form.
We are particularly interested in the cultural differences regarding ASD. For example; how do people think/feel about ASD, how is it diagnosed? Are there any differences in the expression of ASD characteristics in Malaysia as compared to Western countries? Most research so far has been done in Western countries. An important question is whether Western findings can be generalized to Malaysia, and whether Western questionnaires and their norms (as gathered in Western countries) are applicable in Malaysia.
The main methods we use are questionnaires and (cognitive) tasks. For example, we use questionnaires to measure autism characteristics and EF in daily life, and we use cognitive tasks to measure executive functioning (e.g., a Switch task to measure cognitive flexibility, a Stop task to measure inhibition).