Who do you believe when trusted sources contradict what your eyes can plainly see? The answer changes with age but also with whether you have autism. A study exploring the phenomenon reveals both an important stage in growing up and the social benefits of autism.
Dr Kristine Krug of the University of Oxford asked 155 children aged 6-14 to play a game where they were told they were learning to be spaceship pilots. They were then shown a turning cylinder with moving black-and-white dots and told these represented black holes. To navigate their spaceship around the holes, they needed to determine its direction of spin, which was made difficult by optical illusions.
The game was chosen because children have been found to be as good as adults at assessing optical illusions like this. During the game, an advisor – 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. However, these advisors often got it wrong.
Among the 125 neurotypical 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.
On the other hand, the autistic children, 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.
The work fills in a gap in previous psychological studies. Dating back to the 1950s, we have evidence that adults will let others convince them of something in direct contradiction to what their eyes can see. Perhaps surprisingly, children are less susceptible to this sort of social influence. Krug’s work indicates that the shift when this occurs is more of a sharp jump at age 12 than a gradual shift.
“This study may explain some of [children with autism's] difficulties in social interactions,” Krug and co-authors write in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. After all, when other children are being shaped by their peers, those who are not may struggle to fit in.
The work also hints at how society may benefit from people with autism. Most of the time, the advice of others will be helpful and time saving. However, a person with autism who is more likely to spot problems with such advice may see when the old ways no longer serve and drive advances.