BPS Developmental psychology webinar: Margaret Donaldson and Neil O’Connor Award Winner Talks.

Several of our lab members attended the annual BPS Developmental Psychology Section Margaret Donaldson and Neil O’Connor Award Winner Talks (virtually) on the 10th September 2020. The award winners were given the opportunity to deliver a presentation on their recent research each followed by a short discussion. Megan Davies and Afreen Shakur have written about the highlights of the event in the blog below.

Speaker 1 was the Neil O’Connor prize winner, Dr Lucy Livingstone, who spoke about “Characterising compensation in autism spectrum disorder”. Dr Lucy Livingston is a lecturer and coordinator for “Development and Abnormal Psychology” at Cardiff University. Her research is primarily based on a/typical development in neurodevelopmental conditions (e.g., Autism, ADHD).

Dr Livingston outlined the heterogeneity of the development trajectories of individuals with autism. She explained the phenomena, “autism and outcome” where two individuals with a similar early diagnosis of ASD may show different behavioural outcomes in adolescence. The two mechanisms which promote a “good outcome” are genuine remediation and compensatory behaviour. Lucy focused on compensation in her talk, i.e., psychological strategies used to fit in and its cost to mental wellbeing.

Dr. Livingston described the Compensation framework, which outlines that an improvement in behavioural systems can occur despite persistent deficits at cognitive and neurobiological levels. Driven by domain-general processes, compensation uses strategies such as masking, laughing at joke cues and mimicry to modulate social situations. For example, an individual with ASD who has a high IQ may be able to regulate social situations by following certain rules to seem typically functioning. However, Dr Livingstone raised concerns about individuals with ASD being diagnosed late only after experiencing a mental health crisis, due to their symptoms being highly behavioural. In this case she says, ‘Compensation may successfully mask symptoms, but when social demands are high, compensation is not enough’. Dr Livingston referred to the results of her own research that show social symptoms varied in autistic adolescents even though they all had core cognitive deficits. High Compensators demonstrated better IQ and executive function (EF), but greater self‐reported anxiety, compared with Low Compensators. Further evidence was identified in a thematic analysis of interviews with individuals with ASD about using compensatory strategies. The sub-theme ‘cognitively taxing’ reflected the cost of compensation on mental health and individuals described experiencing “Constant overthinking of the connotations of every word, sentence structure, emphasis, body language”.

To conclude, Dr Livingston’s presentation discusses the relationship of IQ, EF and anxiety in the compensatory processes that certain autistic individuals use. This tendency to compensate does not reflect the severity of ASD, suggesting that well‐compensated individuals are not experiencing a milder form of ASD. Clinical implications of high compensation include late-diagnosis and mental health disorders.

The humanistic and inclusive approach Dr Livingstone used to study this issue was particularly positive. She presented a wholesome overview of the neurological variables and strategies that compensation requires, while also talking about the different experiences and opinions of atypically developing individuals using them. After the presentation was over, it made us wonder, given the anxiety and cognitive taxation that compensation causes, should the psychology community be pushing for therapies that encourage individuals with ASD to develop compensation?

The second speaker was Dr Jo Van Herwegen, a Professor at UCL Institute of Education and Director of the Child Development and Learning difficulties Lab. Dr Jo Van Herwegen was awarded with the Margaret Donaldson Early career prize and spoke about “The Complexity of development: Mathematical outcomes in Neurodevelopmental Disorders”. Dr Van Herwegen’s work focuses primarily on individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders with the aim of improving their educational outcomes. In her talk, she described the importance of maths abilities as a predictor of education attainment, financial success and health and wellbeing, whilst also implying its use in everyday activities. Dr Van Herwegen also explained how motivation to learn is impacted by children’s lack of enjoyment and anxiety when it comes to learning maths specifically.

During her presentation, Dr Van Herwegen presented findings comparing mathematical abilities across Down syndrome and Williams syndrome populations. This included comparing their ability to discriminate in an approximate number system (ANS) task in which those with Williams syndrome looked longer when a small difference between numbers was presented compared to those with Down syndrome who looked longer when there was a larger difference between the numbers presented. Therefore, those with Williams syndrome performed better at discriminating between a smaller numerosity whereas those with Down syndrome performed better at discriminating between a larger numerosity. She suggested that the ability to discriminate in an ANS task may be a forerunner for later numerical abilities based on various mathematical tasks with these populations. Dr Van Herwegen also discussed research into number lines as a way to measure maths ability. It’s known that intervention with tasks related to placing numbers on a number line in the typically developing population can improve mathematical achievement. She described how the performance of Williams syndrome individuals on number line tasks was predicted by number familiarity whereas performance in Down syndrome individuals was predicted by visuo-spatial skills. This showed that different underlying skills predict math abilities for individuals with different neurodevelopmental disorders, thus reflecting the differing cognitive strengths and weaknesses in different disorder groups.

Dr Van Herwegen’s overall message from the presentation suggests we should consider both age and domain specific abilities of individual children, including those with neurodevelopmental disorders, when providing support and interventions. Also, by understanding the complex cognitive profiles of individuals with atypical development, resources can be designed to better support them and improve their educational outcomes.

Overall summary:

Both speakers gave interesting presentations on their research into atypically developing populations. Dr Livingstone provided an overview of compensation and its effects on mental health from the perspective of autistic individuals. Dr Van Herwegen discussed possible predictors of mathematical abilities in Down syndrome and Williams syndrome populations. The research discussed, we believe, has positive implications for future interventions as well as contributing to our theoretical understanding of atypical development. 

Written by Megan Davies and Afreen Shakur