With autism, social stature’s not an issue

CALTECH (US) — High-functioning people with autism think differently about how others think of them—in fact they don’t consider what others think about them at all.

This specific difference highlights what researchers call “theory of the mind” abilities—those intuitive skills that help figure out what others think of us—our social reputation. Social reputation has a powerful influence on behavior and is what motivates us to be nice to others.

For a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers asked people to make real money donations to UNICEF under two conditions: alone in a room or while being watched by a researcher.

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“What we found in control participants—people without autism—basically replicated prior work. People donated more when they were being watched by another person, presumably to improve their social reputation,” says Keise Izuma, a postdoctoral scholar at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and first author of the study.

“By contrast, participants with autism gave the same amount of money regardless of whether they were being watched or not. The effect was extremely clear.”

To be certain that the subjects with autism really were not thinking about their social reputation in the presence of the other person—as opposed to simply ignoring that onlooker—the researchers showed that everyone, both controls and people with autism, do better on simple math tasks when being watched than when alone.

“This check was important,” says Ralph Adolphs, professor of psychology and neuroscience and professor of biology at Caltech and the principal investigator on the paper, “because it showed us that in people with autism, the presence of another person is indeed registered, and can have general arousal effects.

“It tells us that what is missing is the specific step of thinking about what another person thinks about us. This is something most of us do all the time—sometimes obsessively so—but seems to be completely lacking in individuals with autism.”

The findings provide a much more precise picture of how people with autism process social information, says Adolphs, and is important not only for use in diagnostic and interventional therapies, but also for educating the general public about the psychology of autism.

Next up for the team: MRI studies to investigate what occurs in the brain during such social interactions, as well as other investigations into the biology and psychology of autism.

Researchers from Tamagawa University in Japan contributed to the work that was supported by a Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative, the National Institute of Mental Health, a fellowship from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Fellows, and a Global Centers of Excellence collaborative grant from the Japanese government to Caltech and Tamagawa University.

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