Probabilistic reinforcement learning in adults with autism spectrum disorders

Marjorie Solomon Friedman, Anne C. Smith, Michael J. Frank, Stanford Ly, Cameron S Carter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

53 Scopus citations


Background: Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) can be conceptualized as disorders of learning, however there have been few experimental studies taking this perspective. Methods: We examined the probabilistic reinforcement learning performance of 28 adults with ASDs and 30 typically developing adults on a task requiring learning relationships between three stimulus pairs consisting of Japanese characters with feedback that was valid with different probabilities (80%, 70%, and 60%). Both univariate and Bayesian state-space data analytic methods were employed. Hypotheses were based on the extant literature as well as on neurobiological and computational models of reinforcement learning. Results: Both groups learned the task after training. However, there were group differences in early learning in the first task block where individuals with ASDs acquired the most frequently accurately reinforced stimulus pair (80%) comparably to typically developing individuals; exhibited poorer acquisition of the less frequently reinforced 70% pair as assessed by state-space learning curves; and outperformed typically developing individuals on the near chance (60%) pair. Individuals with ASDs also demonstrated deficits in using positive feedback to exploit rewarded choices. Conclusions: Results support the contention that individuals with ASDs are slower learners. Based on neurobiology and on the results of computational modeling, one interpretation of this pattern of findings is that impairments are related to deficits in flexible updating of reinforcement history as mediated by the orbito-frontal cortex, with spared functioning of the basal ganglia. This hypothesis about the pathophysiology of learning in ASDs can be tested using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)109-120
Number of pages12
JournalAutism Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2011


  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Basal ganglia
  • Computational model
  • Orbito-frontal cortex
  • Probabilistic
  • Reinforcement learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Genetics(clinical)


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