MONDAY, March 26 (HealthDay News) -- People with autism have an enhanced ability to process information, which may explain the apparently higher-than-average percentage of people with autism who work in the information technology industry, British researchers say.

Along with this heightened capacity for processing information, people with autism are better able to detect information that is considered critical, according to the study, which appeared March 22 in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Autism spectrum disorders include a range of neurodevelopmental disorders, all marked by difficulties with social and communication skills and repetitive behaviors.

People with autism have an increased ability to focus on certain tasks, but are also easily distracted by things such as flashing lights or particular sounds, it has been thought.

A University College London (UCL) researcher wondered if these conflicting characteristics might be due to a higher-than-normal ability to process information.

"Our work on perceptual capacity in the typical adult brain suggests a clear explanation for the unique cognitive profile that people with autism show," Nilli Lavie, a professor at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL, said in a Wellcome Trust news release.

"People who have higher perceptual capacity are able to process more information from a scene, but this may also include some irrelevant information that they may find harder to ignore," she said. "Our research suggests autism does not involve a distractibility deficit but rather an information-processing advantage."

Lavie and her colleagues tested the theory by giving 16 adults with autism and 16 adults without autism a task designed to assess their "perceptual load capacity." Both groups were successful at the task in the easier initial stages, but the adults with autism significantly outperformed those without autism as the task became more difficult.

"Our study confirms our hypothesis that people with autism have higher perceptual capacity compared to the typical population," Lavie said. "This can only be seen once the task becomes more demanding, with more information to process. In the more challenging task conditions, people with autism are able to perceive significantly more information than the typical adult."

Lavie said the findings may help explain why people with autism spectrum disorders, such as Asperger's syndrome, may excel in information technology and other careers that require intense concentration and the ability to process large amounts of information from a computer screen.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about autism.