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Durham University



Publication details for Professor Deborah Riby

Remington, A., Hanley, M., O’Brien, S., Riby, D. M. & Swettenham, J. (2019). Implications of capacity in the classroom: Simplifying tasks for autistic children may not be the answer. Research in Developmental Disabilities 85: 197-204.

Author(s) from Durham


Research has demonstrated evidence for increased perceptual capacity in autism: autistic people can process more information at any given time than neurotypical individuals. The implications of this for educating autistic pupils have not been investigated. For example, this ability to process more information at any given time may explain why autistic children sometimes process more peripheral task-irrelevant information than neurotypical individuals (e.g. in background classroom wall-displays).

The current study assessed the impact of different types of background information on autistic and non-autistic children’s ability to perform a learning task.

Methods and Procedures:
Autistic (N = 23) and non-autistic (N = 50) children took part in a computer-based task designed to simulate a lesson. They watched three videos of a teacher telling a story, each with a different background condition: blank, relevant images, or irrelevant images.

Outcomes and Results:
When the visual display contained story-relevant information, both groups recalled background information in addition to the central story. When the background displays were irrelevant to the story, autistic children recalled more background information than their neurotypical peers, yet maintained their ability to recall information from the central story.

Conclusion and Implications:
The current study suggests that pupils’ perceptual capacity– including those on the autistic spectrum - can indeed be capitalised on to support learning in the classroom. To do so, however, we must ensure that the child can use their capacity for task-relevant processing, rather than irrelevant distractions.

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