Open Science in Experimental Autism Research: A Replication Study of Information Transfer Within and Between Autistic and Non-Autistic People

  • Catherine J Crompton University of Edinburgh
  • Danielle Ropar
  • Noah J Sasson
  • Martin Lages
  • Sue Fletcher-Watson
Keywords: Autism, Replication, Communication, Psychological theories of autism, Open Science


Information sharing depends on successful communication. Because autism is clinically defined by social communication deficits, autistic people may be expected to be less effective at sharing information, particularly with one another. 

In 2020, we published a paper indicating that it is the mismatch between autistic and non-autistic people, rather than autism itself, that degrades information sharing. We used an experimental diffusion chain methodology to examine information transfer in groups of autistic people, groups of non-autistic people, and mixed groups of autistic and non-autistic people. The first participant in each group was told a story which they recounted to a second participant, who recounted it to the third participant and so on, along a “diffusion chain” of eight participants (n = 72). Retention of details within the mixed chain showed a significantly steeper decline than the autistic and mixed chains, which did not significantly differ from each other. 

These results challenge the diagnostic criterion of inherent social deficits in autism, demonstrate that autistic social behaviour can include effective communication and social interaction, and suggest that social difficulties in autism are contextual rather than absolute. Although these findings have profound implications for practitioners, educators, clinicians and psychologists, pushing for dramatic change in policy and practice is premature without a replication establishing these effects as robust and meaningful. Importantly, a failure to replicate would still yield novel insights into interactions between autistic and non-autistic people that could be applied to practice across services. 

We are embarking on an open-science replication of this study in a larger (n = 324) and more diverse sample, across three international sites, to determine whether these findings are replicable in new samples. We hypothesise that we will replicate the original finding, showing that social interactions are facilitated in an autistic group of participants.  Our increased sample size will allow for the identification of moderating demographic factors, and potential communicative mechanisms that facilitate or impede interaction between and within diagnostic groups. Additionally, we will explore whether informing participants of the diagnostic status of participants in their chain affects information transfer and rapport, and whether transfer differs for fictional and factual information. 

This study was funded as part of an Open Science Initiative; our protocols will be pre-registered on the Open Science Framework, and we have a Registered Report currently under review. It is the first Open Science endeavour of this team, and we look forward to the opportunity to discuss this work with the Edinburgh Open Science community. We will present a short summary of the results from the first study and a detailed account of the planned replication, drawn from our Registered Report (currently under review at Nature Human Behaviour)