Illustration of hybrid objects: part light bulb, part lab vial, some in blue and some in red to signify null and replicated results.
Illustration by Laurène Boglio

Null and Noteworthy: Metacognition, balovaptan bust, pattern recognition

This month, we pore over null results from a study of the accuracy of emotion recognition skills in autistic people, clinical trials of a vasopressin drug called balovaptan, and an analysis of ‘systemizing’ abilities in autistic children.

Welcome to this month’s issue of Null and Noteworthy, highlighting null results from studies that examined the accuracy of autistic people’s emotion recognition skills, the effectiveness of a drug called balovaptan, and autistic children’s ability to ‘systemize,’ or to recognize patterns and understand rule-based systems.

I’m Emily Harris, Spectrum’s summer intern, and I will be taking over Null and Noteworthy for a few months while Laura Dattaro, this newsletter’s usual author, is out on leave. Like Laura, I would love to hear your thoughts, papers and suggestions on replications and null findings. Feel free to get in touch with me at [email protected]. Thanks for reading.

Emotion accuracy:

Trouble recognizing emotional facial expressions might underlie some of the communication challenges many autistic people experience, past studies have shown. But the extent to which autistic people are aware of their own difficulties with this skill, known as metacognitive awareness, has been unclear.

There is no difference in how well autistic and non-autistic people recognize the accuracy of their emotion recognition, according to a new study involving 63 people with the condition and 67 without. Though the autistic group correctly identified facial expressions less often than did controls — replicating previous research — their confidence ratings mirrored their accuracy in the same way the non-autistic group’s did, suggesting an equal level of metacognitive awareness.

The work was published in Autism Research in July.

Placebo parity:

The vasopressin suppressor balovaptan has had a tough few months. The March edition of this newsletter highlighted a large randomized controlled trial showing that autistic adults who were treated with the drug scored worse in social communication than those given a placebo.

New findings from another randomized controlled trial also showed null results for socialization and communication — this time in autistic children. Although the differences between the balovaptan- and placebo-treated groups were not statistically significant, both groups improved somewhat on a combination parent- and child-report questionnaire about the child’s quality of life. The strong placebo response suggests the need for more objective outcome measures, the authors write.

The findings were published in JAMA Psychiatry in July.

Similar systems:

The controversial “extreme male brain” theory characterizes autistic people as being adept at systemizing, which involves organizing and creating systems, and less skilled at empathizing, or tuning into the emotional states of others.

A new study, however, suggests there is no difference in systemizing between autistic children without intellectual disability and non-autistic children, after adjusting for differences in IQ. And systemizing is not associated with autism traits, regardless of diagnosis, according to the longitudinal study of 259 boys aged 6 to 12. Lower scores on a parent-report questionnaire designed to assess empathizing, on the other hand, were associated with having more autism traits, in line with some earlier research.

The results were published in Autism Research in June.

Et al.:

  • As was the case in a 2011 study, there are still more representations of autistic children than adults in materials from the Autism Society of America and fictional books, although the numbers are more similar in movies and news stories and on television. Autism in Adulthood
  • Although 344 college students in a computer-programming class scored higher on autism traits than did the general public, those traits did not predict their course grade or performance on an end-of-course test. Computers in Human Behavior Reports
  • There is no difference in survey response rates solicited from parents of autistic children whether they are contacted by email, phone or text message. The parents of autistic girls, however, are less likely to respond to follow-up requests than are the parents of autistic boys. Journal of Pediatric Health Care
  • Sleep problems are a common concern for people with autism and often interfere with quality of life. A meta-analysis of 49 studies on sleep problems confirms the negative impact of lack of sleep on daytime functioning in autistic people. Autism Research
  • Oxidative stress, or an imbalance in the body’s levels of reactive molecules, in mothers during the late second and third trimesters of pregnancy is not associated with autism traits in their children, according to a study of 173 people who already had one autistic child. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders
  • Although more boys and men are diagnosed with autism than are girls and women, a screening tool developed in Sweden is equally good at flagging autistic children regardless of their sex, according to a study of 34,033 children. Psychiatry Research