Adapted to explore: Reinforcement learning in Autistic Spectrum Conditions

Eldad Yechiam, Olga Arshavsky, Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory, Shoshana Yaniv, Judith Aharon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Recent studies have recorded a tendency of individuals with Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) to continually change their choices in repeated choice tasks. In the current study we examine if this finding implies that ASC individuals have a cognitive style that facilitates exploration and discovery. Six decision tasks were administered to adolescents with ASC and matched controls. Significant differences in shifting between choice options appeared in the Iowa Gambling task (Bechara, Damasio, Damasio, & Anderson, 1994). A formal cognitive modeling analysis demonstrated that for about half of the ASC participants the adaptation process did not conform to the standard reinforcement learning model. These individuals were only coarsely affected by choice-outcomes, and were more influenced by the exploratory value of choices, being attracted to previously un-explored alternatives. An examination of the five simpler decision tasks where the advantageous option was easier to determine showed no evidence of this pattern, suggesting that the shifting choice pattern is not an uncontrollable tendency independent of task outcomes. These findings suggest that ASC individuals have a unique adaptive learning style, which may be beneficial is some learning environment but maladaptive in others, particularly in social contexts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)317-324
Number of pages8
JournalBrain and Cognition
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2010

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported in part by the Israel Science Foundation (Grant No. 244/06 ) and by the Max Wertheimer Minerva Center for Cognitive Studies.


  • Autism
  • Decision making
  • Learning
  • Modeling
  • Reinforcement

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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