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Magic trick sheds light on autism
Psychologists have used a magic trick to test theories about the social impairments associated with autism (Psychological Science). Gustav Kuhn at Brunel University and his collaborators predicted that young adults with high-functioning autism or Asperger's would be less prone than usual to the vanishing ball illusion, which partly depends on social cues for its effectiveness. In fact, compared with neurotypical controls, the participants with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) were actually more prone to the illusion.
Fifteen people diagnosed with ASD (aged 17 - 22) and 18 neurotypical controls (aged 18 - 34) watched a video clip of the trick. A magician was seen three times throwing a ball in the air. On the first two occasions he catches the ball, but on the third, the ball is in fact secreted in his hand and the throw is mimed. The magician's gaze follows an upward path as if he really had thrown the ball, thus enhancing the illusion of the ball disappearing at its apogee.
The participants had their eye movements tracked, were asked to mark the location at which they last saw the ball on the final throw, and to explain how the trick was performed. The average final ball position marked by the ASD participants was higher than the controls, thus suggesting they'd seen an illusory ball. What's more, 53 per cent of the ASD participants gave an explanation for the illusion that suggested they believed the ball had left the magician's hand on the final throw, compared with just 15 per cent of the controls.
Contrary to past research showing that people with ASD focus less often than controls on the eye region of the face, the ASD participants in the current study focused on the magician's face and eyes just as much as the controls. However, they fixated the ball less often, especially when it reached its apogee during the first two throws.
'Our evidence challenges the idea that adults with ASD have general social-attention difficulties (i.e. gaze avoidance),' Kuhn's team said. 'Apart from exhibiting a subtle delay in launching their first eye movement to the face, participants with ASD showed typical attention to facial cues.'
The researchers explained the discrepancy with former research by pointing out that 'social-attention difficulties become reduced with development because over time people with ASD learn to use social cues.' However, critics of the study will doubtless point to the fact that the current research used a video clip rather than a real, live social situation.
'Our results suggest that individuals with ASD have problems in rapidly allocating attention both to people and to moving objects,' the researchers concluded, 'a difficulty which in complex situations may result in serious perceptual challenges.'
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