AS a child, Dr James Cusack was told his autism would prevent him from ever leading a normal, independent life.

Instead the Aberdeen scientist has used his own experiences with the communication disorder to forge pioneering research which suggests that sufferers' brains can be "retrained" to understand the gestures and body language which they normally find confusing and which make social interaction challenging.

Dr Cusack, whose research was conducted as part of a PhD in biomedical science at Aberdeen University, believes generalisations about people with autism being poorer at interpreting these physical cues may be exaggerated and could be overcome by developing their ability to pay attention to signals in their brain which may otherwise go unnoticed.

The findings of his four-year study, published in the prestigious Journal of Neuroscience, are based on his work with adolescents with autism in Aberdeen.

Those taking part in the study were shown a series of human action sequences, created using technology which reduces figures to a series of dots. They were then asked to distinguish between similar actions such as dancing and fighting - something which it is commonly believed those with autism have greater difficulty in determining.

The results showed that their ability to detect these subtle differences was significantly higher than previously thought.

Dr Cusack said: "The results showed only a slight impairment and this was more of a generalised deficit which might instead be attributed to factors such as the ability to pay attention, rather than autism specifically."

The research was inspired by Dr Cusack's own experience. He was 12 when he was told that his autism meant he was likely to require residential care for the rest of his life because he would be unable to cope independently.

However, as a result of the targeted education he received at a specialist autism unit within Dyce Academy, he went on to excel in education.

He said: "I went from an expectation that I would not sit any exams to achieving straight ones in my Standard Grades, and then gaining Highers which enabled me to attend the University of Aberdeen where I obtained a psychology degree.

"I then completed my degree and PhD, met my wife who is training to be a GP, and have a baby daughter. I couldn't have imagined I'd achieve any of this when given my diagnosis aged 12."

Dr Cusack's doctoral project was jointly supervised by Dr Peter Neri, a leading visual scientist from Aberdeen University, and Dr Justin Williams, a psychiatrist who pioneered influential theories of autism, also based at the University.

Dr Neri said: "We had expected to see impairments of the sensory system - the first part of the brain that determines the action they see when shown the human motion simulations, for example confusion between similar actions such as dancing or fighting, as many previous studies have proposed.

"But what we found is that this region of the brain functions perfectly. Instead, difficulties seem to arise at a later stage of cognition in a different brain system, which informs what we should do in response to an action, often termed the 'executive function'.

"Although we do not know exactly what happens here, by identifying that this is where the impairment occurs is extremely significant."

He added that the "executive functions of the brain can be can be 'trained' to make use of these sensory inputs more effectively", allowing autistic individuals to manage the condition more effectively.

Dr Cusack said he would continue his research to identify "which brain circuits are affected, and what interventions can be taken in order to restore function within those circuits".

He added: "My goal is to identify the precise nature of the deficits associated with autism, and devise effective ways of counteracting them."