Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

They Can Seek, But Autistic Kids Won’t Find

By Stephen Luntz

Children with autism are good at searching on a small scale but lack the ability to find objects in larger environments, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr Liz Pellicano of the University of Western Australia’s School of Psychology asked 40 children, half of them autistic, to seek hidden objects in a large room. The hiding places were weighted so that 80% were on one side of the room. It might be expected that autistic children would pick up on the rule more quickly than others, but the opposite was the case.

Much has been made of studies finding an association between autism and enhanced visual processing. “It has long been thought that one of the strengths in autism is searching for hidden objects. Previous studies, however, have only assessed this apparent ability on computer screens or desk tops,” Pellicano says. She argues that this capacity breaks down on a larger scale, causing the autistic children to be significantly worse at finding hidden objects.

Pellicano doesn’t think this was caused by lack of interest. “It is difficult to index a child’s motivation but I can say that all of our children loved the foraging game, and understood that the goal was to find the hidden target as quickly as possible,” she says.

“In fact, we invited all children to come back into our laboratory again about a year later to take part in a completely different experiment, and the majority of them asked when they were going to get another go at the ‘lights game’. So we are confident that the group differences we found on our task are not due to the children with autism lacking in motivation.”

All the children had intellectual functioning within the average range or higher. Beyond this, Pellicano thinks her group was varied enough to indicate they were representative of children with autism.