Atypical cognitive training-induced learning and brain plasticity and their relation to insistence on sameness in children with autism


Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) often display atypical learning styles; however, little is known regarding learning-related brain plasticity and its relation to clinical phenotypic features. Here, we investigate cognitive learning and neural plasticity using functional brain imaging and a novel numerical problem-solving training protocol. Children with ASD showed comparable learning relative to typically developing children but were less likely to shift from rule-based to memory-based strategy. While learning gains in typically developing children were associated with greater plasticity of neural representations in the medial temporal lobe and intraparietal sulcus, learning in children with ASD was associated with more stable neural representations. Crucially, the relation between learning and plasticity of neural representations was moderated by insistence on sameness, a core phenotypic feature of ASD. Our study uncovers atypical cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying learning in children with ASD, and informs pedagogical strategies for nurturing cognitive abilities in childhood autism.