Children with autism lack visual skills required for independence

22 December 2010

The ability to find shoes in the bedroom, apples in a supermarket, or a favourite animal at the zoo is impaired among children with autism, according to new research led by Dr Liz Pellicano of the IOE.

Surprising results from a study of 20 autistic children show that while autistic children generally outperform others in small-scale visual search tasks, they are much less efficient in large-scale search. Finding an apple on a fruit plate is a much different visual task than finding an apple in the grocery store.  Autistic children are generally better than their peers at small-scale visual tasks like the former, but large-scale tasks, like the latter, are crucial for independent living.

Pellicano and colleagues tested 20 autistic and 20 non-autistic children in a foraging game. Eighty per cent of the targets were on one side of the large space, a manipulation that would favor individuals who are drawn to understanding rule-based systems. Surprisingly, the control group outperformed the autistic children, who engaged in very inefficient searches. The researchers attribute this to an inability to form a global representation of the search space and problems with short-term spatial memory that prevent them from discerning the rules and applying them effectively

Contrary to previous studies, which show that children with autism often demonstrate outstanding visual search skills, this new research indicates that children with autism are unable to search effectively for objects in real-life situations – a skill that is essential for achieving independence in adulthood.

Dr Pellicano said: "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. We discovered that when people with autism are asked to search for something in a large-scale space their apparent advantage over others drops away.
"It is vital that we fully understand the strengths and disadvantages of autism so that we can help people, and especially children, with autism maximize their well-being in the long-run."
Further information:

The paper, 'Children with autism are neither systematic nor optimal foragers', by Elizabeth Pellicano, Alastair D. Smith, Filipe Cristino, Bruce M. Hood, Josie Briscoe and Iain D. Gilchrist is published this week[Monday 20 December] in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).