LOS ANGELES (CBS) — Caltech researchers announced Monday they believe they have evidence to demonstrate a common behavior in high-functioning people with autism — that they do not seem to care what other people think of them.
The research, which is documented in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that people with autism lack what is called “theory of mind,” a skill for figuring out one’s social reputation.
Psychologists say the skill motivates people to be nice to others.
In an experiment, Caltech researchers asked people with and without autism to make monetary donations to UNICEF while sitting alone in a room and when with other people in the room watching.
“People (without autism) donated more when they were being watched by another person, presumably to improve their social reputation,” said Keise Izuma, a Caltech postdoctoral student who was one of the study’s authors.
In contrast, people with autism gave the same amount of money regardless of whether they were being watched.
“The effect was extremely clear,” Izuma said.
In a control experiment, people with and without autism performed better on basic math skills while others were watching them perform the tasks.
“It showed us that in people with autism, the presence of another person is indeed registered, and can have general arousal effects,” said Ralph
Adolphs, a Caltech psychology and neuroscience professor who led the study.
“It tells us that what is missing is the specific step of thinking about what another person thinks about us.”
Adolphs said the research gives doctors and scientists a much more precise picture of how people with autism process social information and could lead to better therapies. He said the findings are also important in helping
the general public better understand the psychology of autism.