UK coronavirus rules relaxed for people with autism and learning disabilities

Policy updated after lawyers challenge ‘discriminatory’ lockdown measures

People with learning disabilities or autism can leave the house for exercise more than once a day and can travel outside of their local area under current lockdown measures, the government has said.

The guidance, which had previously stated that non-essential workers should only leave their homes once a day for exercise or to shop for basic necessities, was amended on Wednesday.

The updated advice reads: “If you (or a person in your care) have a specific health condition that requires you to leave the home to maintain your health – including if that involves travel beyond your local area – then you can do so.

“This could, for example, include where individuals with learning disabilities or autism require specific exercise in an open space two or three times each day – ideally in line with a care plan agreed with a medical professional.”

Although those with autism and mental health conditions are advised to limit their travel, and stay as close to their local area as possible, carers and support workers who do not live in their household can accompany them.

The change comes after lawyers from Bindmans LLP and 39 Essex Chambers were asked for help by two families with children on the autistic spectrum.

Bindmans said one of the children, whose conditions mean it was necessary for them to leave the house more than once a day for their wellbeing, was deliberately taken to a quiet location outside of their local area because of their particular needs.

The firms argued that the “inflexible policy”, which also says people should stay two metres apart from anyone outside of their household, disproportionately impacted those with certain health conditions and was “therefore unlawful and discriminatory”.

After the amendment was made to the guidance, one of the affected families said they were “delighted” they could support their son’s needs “without breaking the rules”.

A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office said the most important action the public could take during the pandemic was to stay home to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

But, it added: “We understand that this will be more difficult for some, that is why we clarified the guidance regarding the needs of those with specific health conditions such as learning disabilities or autism.”

What is the secret to being more assertive? Having self respect

By Christian Jarrett

Why are some of us more inclined than others to stick up for ourselves, not aggressively, but assertively. Assertive people let others know when they feel mistreated and they’re confident saying “no” to unwanted demands.

Presumably it has to do with how see ourselves, yet past research has established that two key aspects of the self-concept – good feelings about the self (“self-liking” or “self-confidence”) and seeing oneself as competent – are not strongly related to assertive behaviour.

Daniela Renger, a researcher at the Institute of Psychology at Kiel University in Germany, believes this is because most relevant to assertiveness is self-respect – “a person’s conviction that they possess the universal dignity of persons and basic moral human rights and equality”. Across three studies published in Self and Identity, Renger shows that self-respect is a distinct psychological concept and that it is uniquely correlated with assertive behaviour.

For her studies, Renger devised a new, four-item self-report measure of self-respect. Participants rated their strength of agreement with:

In everyday life I always see myself as a person with equal rights
I always see myself as a person of equal worth compared with other people in my life
I am always aware that I have the same dignity as all other human beings
If I look at myself, I see a person who is equally worthy compared with others

In an initial study, 343 women and men in Germany (average age 33) completed this measure, plus questionnaires tapping their self-competence (e.g. “I am almost always able to accomplish what I try for”) and self-confidence (e.g. “I look at myself with warmth and affection”; “It is always worth taking good care of myself”). They also completed an 8-item measure of assertiveness, for example saying whether they would feel comfortable “telling a companion you don’t like a certain way he or she has been treating you”. Nearly a hundred of the participants completed these same questionnaires again nine months later.

Based on her analysis of the participants’ answers to the various measures, including  the correlations within and between them, Renger concluded that self-competence, self-confidence and self-respect are distinct aspects of the self-concept. Also, while all three factors correlated with assertiveness, only self-respect had a unique association with assertiveness when accounting for the other two factors. Finally, there was some tentative causal evidence: having greater self-respect at Time 1 correlated with increased assertiveness as measured 9 months later, but the reverse was not true (having greater assertiveness initially was not associated with increased self-respect).

What is the secret to being more assertive? Having self respect

Autistic boys and girls found to have “hypermasculinised” faces – supporting the Extreme Male Brain theory

By Christian Jarrett

According to the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism, there are certain cognitive and behavioural characteristics that manifest more often in men than women, on average, such as a bias for systematic rather than empathic thinking. Autism can be seen as as extreme version of that typical male profile, the theory proposes, possibly caused by prenatal exposure to higher than usual amounts of testosterone in the womb.

A related observation is that exposure to high concentrations of prenatal testosterone leads to the development of “hyper masculine” facial features. It follows that if the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism is accurate, then autistic people will have hypermasculine faces.

A new study in Scientific Reports put this logic to the test, and consistent with the Extreme Male Brain theory, found that autistic girls and boys had more masculine faces as compared with neurotypical control children.

Past research into whether autistic people tend to have stereotypically masculine facial features has been mixed. Women with sub-clinical autistic traits or a diagnosis of autism have been found to have more masculine than average faces, but studies with autistic men have sometimes found no difference from controls, or they’ve found the autistic men to have androgynous rather than hyper masculine features.

For their new paper, the research team led by Diana Tan at the University of Western Australia, deliberately sought to test pre-pubescent autistic and neurotypical children, thus removing the possibility that hormonal changes during puberty might conceal or reverse any facial signs of prenatal exposure to high testosterone levels (as may have been the case in the earlier research involving adults).

Tan and her colleagues also employed a new 3D facial mapping process, tested on 48 neurotypical boys and 53 neurotypical girls, to provide a highly accurate and objective measure of the facial features that most typify a male and female child’s face. Using these features, the researchers’ algorithm was able to correctly categorise the sex of children’s faces with around 98 per cent accuracy.

Next, the researchers deployed their 3D facial mapping algorithm to score the facial features of 54 caucasian autistic boys, 20 caucasian autistic girls and age-matched neurotypical caucasian boys and girls. This showed that the autistic boys and girls had more masculine than usual faces – to use the researchers’ jargon, their faces were hypermasculinised.

Moreover, when the researchers compared the autistic children and control children’s faces on the six facial features (mostly related to the positioning of the nose and upper lip) that most strongly distinguished neurotypcial boys’ faces from girls’ faces, the autistic kids of both sexes were found to have a more masculine score than controls on five of these features.

Finally, among the autistic boys and girls, the more masculinised their faces, the more social and communication difficulties they tended to have, as scored in their diagnostic test for autism.

The sample sizes for this study were relatively small, but the study’s biggest weakness is that it asks us to make a logical leap – high prenatal testosterone levels are known to cause faces to appear more masculine, autistic children have more masculine than average faces (as shown by the new results), therefore high prenatal testosterone levels contribute to autism (in line with the Extreme Male Brain Theory). However, as the researchers’ themselves acknowledge, this study featured no data on the testosterone levels that the children were exposed to prenatally, meaning there could be other explanations for the results. “Further investigation that tracks longitudinal links between early testosterone exposure, postnatal facial morphology and autism phenotype will provide more direct tests of the hypothesised relationships,” they said.

The Extreme Male Brain theory has inspired important research into the causes of autism, but it has also been controversial. Cordelia Fine, the author of Delusions of Gender and Testosterone Rex, cites the theory as an example of contemporary “neurosexism”. And other recent research has uncovered findings that are inconsistent with the theory – for instance, last year a brain imaging study found that, compared with male neurotypical controls, autistic boys and men had resting connectivity patterns that resembled what’s more typically seen in women, while autistic girls and women showed a more masculine neurological profile, lending support “to the notion that autistic spectrum disorder may constitute a disorder of sexual differentiation or androgeny rather than a disorder characterized by masculinization in both genders.”


Autistic boys and girls found to have “hypermasculinised” faces – supporting the Extreme Male Brain theory

Want to take part in autism research?

We want to understand the biomedical causes of autism spectrum conditions, and develop new methods for assessment and ways to offer support.
With your help we can achieve this!

Studies include: personality tests, genetic research, cognition tests, and brain scans

If you are over 16 with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum, or a parent of child/ren with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum please go to

Arc – Autism Research Centre

University of Cambridge


Tories ‘shifting the goal posts’ on disability benefit entitlements, say Labour

Government has rewritten the law to deny higher benefit payments for more than 150,000 disabled people.

Callous Tory ministers have been accused of “shifting the goal posts” on disability benefit entitlements, after it was revealed that the UK Government has rewritten the law to deny higher payments for more than 150,000 disabled people.

Two social security tribunal cases resulted in the government being told to ensure more disabled qualify for Personal Independence Payments (PIP), which would better recognise how their condition affects their ability to live as independently as possible.

PIP consists of two separate components – a daily living component and a mobility element – each paying a standard or enhanced rate, with the enhanced rate paying more than the lower rate.

Claimants are awarded points in each component, depending on how their disability or long-term illness affects them on a daily basis, through an assessment system campaigners have likened to a “tick-box exercise”.

A minimum of eight points are required to qualify for the standard rate of each component, while claimants need to secure at least 12 points for the enhanced rate.

The first tribunal said those who experience “overwhelming physical distress” when outdoors alone, a common and debilitating symptom of severe psychological disorders that can leave sufferers trapped in their homes, should be awarded more points for the PIP mobility component.

An estimated 143,000 sick and disabled people would have benefitted from the ruling, with around half of these qualifying for the enhanced higher rate of £57.45 per week.

The other half would have qualified for the standard rate, currently £21.80 a week. A further 21,000 would have been moved from the standard to the enhanced rate.

A second tribunal said more points should be awarded in the daily living component for those who need help taking medication and monitoring their condition. More than 1,000 people would have benefitted from this decision, if the DWP had accepted it.

The DWP argued that adhering to the tribunal’s recommendations would cost the department an extra £3.7bn by 2022, the Daily Mirror reports.

So rather than accepting the Tribunal’s recommendations, and recognising how those affected incur extra costs as a direct consequence of their illness or disability, the DWP has instead decided to rewrite the law – yes, you read that correctly – thus denying tens of thousands of sick and disabled people the additional financial support they desperately need.

Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Debbie Abrahams MP, blasted the decision: “Instead of listening to the court’s criticisms of PIP assessments and correcting these injustices, this government have instead decided to undermine the legal basis of the rulings”, she said.

Abrahams added: “This is an unprecedented attempt to subvert an independent tribunal judgement by a right-wing government with contempt for judicial process.

“By shifting the goal posts, the Tory Government will strip entitlements from over 160,000 disabled people, money which the courts believe is rightfully theirs. This is a step too far, even for this Tory government.”

Brain scans could identify babies most at risk of developing autism, study shows

Images revealed which infants would go on to have an autism diagnosis, raising hopes for earlier care and interventions for those affected.

Babies who are most at risk of developing autism as toddlers have been identified from brain scans in the first year of life.

The images helped doctors spot which of a group of children who were already at risk because of autism in the family would later be diagnosed with the condition.

The work raises hopes that affected children could be helped with earlier specialised care and interventions to help their social abilities before any behavioural symptoms start to appear.

Scientists studied 106 babies, all of whom had an older brother or sister with autism, and found that telltale features in brain images taken at six and 12 months revealed which infants would go on to have an autism diagnosis.

The technology is not ready to use in clinics, but researchers who took part in the study believe it lays the groundwork for a tool that can predict autism in high-risk babies before their first birthday.

“We don’t have such a tool yet, but if we did, parents of high-risk infants wouldn’t need to wait for a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder at two, three or even four years,” said Annette Estes, a co-author on the study and director of the University of Washington in Seattle. “Researchers could start developing interventions to prevent these children from falling behind in social and communication skills,” she added.

About one in 70 children in the UK develops autism, but among those with a diagnosed sibling, the risk of the condition can rise to about one in five. The test has not been tried on children who are not at high risk.

Writing in the journal Nature, the scientists describe how they compared brain scans of high-risk babies with those from 42 low-risk children who had no siblings with autism. On each lab visit, scientists assessed the children’s behaviour and intellectual abilities.

The images, taken as the babies slept, revealed that high-risk infants who developed autism experienced a “hyperexpansion” of the brain’s surface in the first year of life. The unusual growth preceded a rise in brain volume over the following year that was linked to social difficulties the children developed.

The scientists next used a machine learning algorithm to predict from the scans and the infant’s sex which high-risk children would be diagnosed with autism at the age of two. The computer identified eight in 10 of those who developed autism. In about 3% of cases, it predicted autism that did not appear.

Interrupting yourself can be more disruptive than being interrupted by someone else

By Christian Jarrett

At work or study, whenever you choose to break away from your main task to do something else – such as leaving an email you’re in the middle of writing to go check Facebook instead – you are effectively interrupting yourself. It’s obvious that self-interruptions risk hurting your focus, but you might not realise just how much. A new study in Computers in Human Behaviour shows that in certain contexts interrupting yourself can be even more disruptive than an external interruption, and that it has to do with the brain power that’s needed whenever you make a decision to pause your main task to do something different.

Ioanna Katidioti and her colleagues at the University of Groningen had 28 young adult participants complete a computer task that was designed to simulate a typical work situation in which the primary objective was to answer client emails, while a secondary objective was to participate in a live text chat with a friend. Answering the client emails involved remembering the product the client was enquiring about, looking up the price in a browser, then emailing back the answer. The live chat with a friend involved answering questions about favourite things, like books and restaurants.

To complete each stage of the experiment, the participants were told that they had to answer 10 client emails and exchange 15 chat messages with their friend. The most important detail is that for some stages, the participants chose when to switch from answering emails to chat with their friend (i.e. self-interruption), whereas in other stages, the live chat was forced on them (i.e. external interruption – the chat window came to the foreground of the computer screen and the email window went out of focus).

One other thing about the task set-up – the researchers programmed the simulation so that the external interruptions actually occurred at the same moments in the email answering and price-look-up process as the self-interruptions – this was to rule out the effect of interruption timings on the results (I’ll explain more about this later).

It seems counter-intuitive, but the participants actually took longer to answer client emails in the stages of the experiment that involving self-interruption as opposed to external interruption – 24.83 seconds to answer 10 emails, on average, compared with 23.36 seconds (a statistically significant difference).

Past research has shown that work interruptions are often particularly disruptive because of the time it takes us to get back into our primary task. However, in the current study, the slower performance during self-interruption stages of the experiment was not due to participants taking longer to return to emailing as compared with after external interruptions.

This prompted Katidioti and her colleagues to reason that perhaps the greater cost of self-interruptions is due to effects that happen prior to the interruption. To test this, they repeated the first experiment with more participants and this time recorded their pupil dilation – a well-established marker of mental effort. They found that pupil dilation occurred one second earlier prior to self-interruptions, as compared with external interruptions, indicating that the decision of whether and when to self-interrupt takes a  degree of mental effort, which has an adverse effect on subsequent performance on the primary email task.

This results suggest that when you’re working on your computer and you have social media apps open in the background, there’s going to be a significant cost to your performance, even if you have all the alerts turned off. This is because you’ve now got the mental burden of deciding whether and when to stop what you’re doing, to go check your social apps. By contrast, when you have the app alerts switched on, or the phone rings, or there’s someone at the door, this decision is effectively made for you.

There is a major caveat here related to the timings of interruptions. One reason that real-life external interruptions can be so disruptive, compared with self-interruptions, is that they can occur when you’re in a particularly tricky part of your primary task, whereas when you self-interrupt,  you can make sure you only switch tasks at more convenient moments. The current study removed this part of the equation by ensuring the external interruptions were timed similarly to self-interruptions.

What does this mean for real-life working? The researchers said their results suggest the ideal situation would be to have external interruptions – such as app alerts – that are programmed to occur only at low-demand moments of the primary task. For example, perhaps one day Facebook or other alerts could be designed to monitor your work behaviour to only appear on-screen when you’re doing something that you’ve identified as relatively easy. Such a set-up would save you the mental effort that the current study suggests is involved in self-interruptions, while also removing the usual main disadvantage of external interruptions – their inconsiderate timing.

—Interrupt me: External interruptions are less disruptive than self-interruptions

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest


How The Bridge’s heroine became a role model for women with autism

By Lucy Townsend

BBC News

Saga Noren from the Scandinavian TV crime drama The Bridge has become an unlikely hero. Widely diagnosed by viewers as being on the autistic spectrum, she is lauded not just because she is a leading character with the condition, but – more unusually – because she is a woman with it.

She is blunt, doesn’t understand jokes and struggles to build relationships. She strips down to her underwear to get changed in the office without embarrassment, and asks and answers questions with often excruciating honesty. “Would you like the recipe?” asks her dinner host. “No, thanks, it wasn’t tasty,” comes her reply.

While the writers of The Bridge have never confirmed that Saga has Asperger syndrome – a form of autism – it has been generally assumed to be the case. Sofia Helin, the actress who plays her, has regularly referred to it in interviews. She researched the condition before filming started and has been sent letters and fan mail from people with the condition, as well as from the Swedish Asperger society.

But while people have been increasingly exposed to fictional characters with autistic traits in recent years – Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, or Christopher from Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time – Saga stands out because she is a woman.

Autism was once described as a manifestation of an “an extreme male brain” – the theory being that maleness involved a predisposition for mechanistic or logical thinking. Paediatrician Hans Asperger first defined the form of autism which now takes his name after observing boys with regular intelligence and language development, who nevertheless displayed autistic traits. He originally believed that no girls were affected by the syndrome, although clinical evidence later caused him to revise this.

But increasing numbers of women are receiving diagnoses as adults.

Elisabeth Wiklander was diagnosed with autism in her late 20s. Exhausted by being turned away by doctors, she had packed all the books, articles and folders she had read on the subject in a large bag and unloaded them onto her doctor’s desk.

“I said, ‘I have read all of this. I know I have this condition, please listen to me,'” she says.

Wiklander had spent many years being ignored by doctors and psychologists, who couldn’t relate her symptoms to the type of autism that they knew. She was professionally successful (she is a cellist in the London Philharmonic Orchestra), she was in a long term relationship, and is articulate. She had learnt to mask many of her more textbook autistic traits.

But her case is not unusual. Journalist Laura James received her diagnosis at the age of 46. A married mother-of-four, she had spent her life “always feeling different”. She says she had been “written off” as having anorexia (she would often forget to eat), anxiety and sometimes just as being “difficult”. Finally this summer a psychologist confirmed what she already knew – that she had adult Asperger syndrome.

Welcome to the weird world of weight illusions

Visual illusions are useful to psychologists because, by tricking the brain, they provide clues about how it works. The same is true for weight illusions, it’s just that they’re far less well known. Now Gavin Buckingham at Heriot-Watt University has published a handy review of weight illusions, and he explores some of the thinking about their likely causes.

Among the most studied is known as the “size-weight illusion (SWI)”. When a person is presented with two objects – one large, one small – that weigh the same, the smaller object feels heavier. The illusion persists even when the perceiver is told what’s going on.

One explanation for the SWI is that, anticipating it will be heavier, we use stronger force to lift the bigger object than the smaller one. The greater force used to lift the bigger object leads to the perception of lightness, so the argument goes. But this explanation can’t account for the fact that the illusion persists regardless of how many times we perform the lifts, and as we adjust our anticipatory force.

Although the SWI illusion persists through repeated liftings, it can actually be reversed through extensive training. Buckingham describes a study in which groups of participants were repeatedly exposed to sets of “inverted-density” objects, in which it was always the smaller items that were heavier. One session of 1000 such lifts reduced the SWI slightly. Three days, conducting 1000 inverted-density lifts each day, cancelled out the SWI. Eventually, after 11 days of 1000 inverted-density lifts a day, the SWI was actually reversed – that is, 11 days of a topsy-turvy world, in which smaller objects were always heavier than bigger ones, led these participants to experience the larger of two equally weighted objects as heavier.

Also intriguing is the “material weight illusion”. Objects that appear to be made out of heavier-looking material (e.g. metal) feel as though they are lighter than equivalently weighted objects that appear to be made out of light material (e.g. polystyrene). Related illusions include the “brightness-weight illusion” – light-coloured objects feel heavier than darker objects of the same weight; and the “temperature-weight illusion” which is when cold objects feel heavier than warm objects of the same weight. In one of the earliest observations of this effect, which you can easily try at home, Ernst Weber (1795-1878) described how a cold coin placed on the forehead of a supine person feels heavier to them than a warm coin.

Here’s one more illusion that demonstrates elegantly the influence of our expectations on our perceptions. Buckingham describes how researchers adjusted the normal weight of practice golf balls upwards so that their appearance was unchanged, but they weighed the same amount as real golf balls. To expert golfers, these manipulated practice balls felt as though they were heavier than the (equal weight) real balls. By contrast, non-golfers experienced no such effect – adjusted practice balls and real balls felt the same – presumably because they had no expectations that the practice balls would be lighter than the real balls.

Visual illusions get a lot of attention – they’re easy to share and discuss. Buckingham’s paper provides a valuable glimpse (or feel) into the lesser known world of heaviness illusions. It’s surprising to discover that the causes of many of these illusions remain controversial and mysterious. To take just one example, it’s been shown that subjective, conscious expectations can’t fully account for the size-weight illusion. The size of the illusion is the same whether it is performed with large and small metal cubes, or large and small polystyrene cubes – even though people’s expectation “larger = heavier” would be so much stronger for metal than for polystyrene cubes. This tells us that something else is distorting people’s perceptions of the cubes’ true weight, other than their conscious expectations.

“Future work should aim to determine the nature of the bottom-up influences [those pertaining to the nature of the object, or the forces acting on it] in weight perception as a function of the lifting task,” said Buckingham, “in addition to identifying how these bottom-up effects interact with top-down expectations across the various types of weight illusion.”