As parents with kids who have autism, we learn early on that a lot of kids with ASD aren’t as in tune with social cues as their neurotypical counterparts. This study hints at an upside to their independent nature.
Dr Kristine Krug of the University of Oxford had a focus group of 155 children aged 6-14. They were asked to play a game where they were told they were pretending to be spaceship pilots. Then, they were given “a turning cylinder with moving black-and-white dots and were instructed that the dots represented black holes. In order to accurately navigate their spaceship around the holes, they needed to determine its direction of spin, which was made difficult by optical illusions.”
This specific game was chosen because research has previously shown that children can be as good at identifying optical illusions as adults.
While playing their game, a chosen person involved in the study – which for half the children was an adult and for the other half a child their age – told them which way the hole was turning.
These advisors often got it wrong.
Dr. Krug’s study showed that “among the 125 neurotypical [children without Autism] children, an unusually clear age pattern emerged. Children under 12 exercised their own judgment, ignoring the advice they received, irrespective of the source. From 12 onwards, neurotypical children were strongly influenced by advice, be it from an adult or peer, even when they were told something contradicting what they could see. Wrong advice both slowed responses and led to incorrect decisions.”
But the results for children with autism had a shocking twist.
“[Those with Autism] who had been matched for age and IQ with the neurotypical sample, were only very slightly influenced by advice, and this didn’t change as they aged. Once past age 12, they did better on the test than neurotypical participants because they were not swayed by the bad advice.”
Dr. Krug’s study indicates that the independence of those with autism who can spot errors in other people’s advice is beneficial to society.
She also highlights that her study fills in the wholes of a previous study dating back to the 1950s, where evidence demonstrated that adults allow others to persuade them even if there is “something in direct contradiction to what their eyes can see.”
Dr. Krug’s work also found that the shift of neurotypical children taking the advice of others occurs sharply at the age of 12.
While Dr. Krug’s study parallels to the fact that children with Autism have a delayed understanding of social cues, it also gives their nonobservance for some social cues a silver lining.