Individuals with ASD keep up with vanishing ball

Autism Spectrum Disorders are characterized by social deficits, among other things. Accurately reading and understanding facial expressions is difficult for individuals on the spectrum.  Reading and understanding facial expressions is key in social situations, but also required for magic tricks that require misdirection, or the magician’s encouraging audience members to watch his or her face while he or she completes the “magic” with his or her hands. Click here to see an example of an amateur magician demonstrating the vanishing ball trick.

Magicians rely heavily on misdirection, on drawing attention to one place to detract from the “magic” occurring elsewhere.  Audiences watch the magicians’ face and are either taken in by his expression or they aren’t, depending on the degree to which they attend to the magician’s face rather than his hands.  Researchers at Brunel University hypothesized that “people with autism should be less susceptible to such social manipulation,” as they are less susceptible to social cues, and be less likely to be taken by a magic trick (Science Daily).

For the purposes of this study, 15 teenagers with autism and 16 without autism watched a video of a magician performing a “vanishing-ball illusion,” in which a magician tosses a ball into the air a few times and, on the last throw, merely makes a tossing motion and looks upward, as though following the ball’s trajectory, while the ball is actually hidden safely in his hand.  Subjects were asked to watch the video of this trick and then mark where they last saw the ball on a frozen image of the magician.  The ball actually last appeared in the magician’s hand, as he never threw it into the air on the last “throw,” but many subjects, including those with autism, marked a position higher up on the screen, as though the ball were ascending or descending.

Gustav Kuhn, in the Visual Cognition Lab at Brunel, is a study author with Anastasia Kourkoulou and Susan R. Leekam.  Kuhn stated the group “strongly suspected that individuals with autism should be using the social cues less than typically developing individuals” and that these individuals with autism would be more likely to watch the ball rather than the magician’s face.  In actuality, the people with autism “were much more likely to think the magician had thrown the ball.”  Kuhn suggested that this may be because the test subjects with autism are all students at a special college for autism and may have been trained to rely on social cues.  However, when Kuhn inspected where the individuals with autism fixed their eyes, he realized that, “like normally-developing people, they looked first at the magician’s face – but their eyes took longer to fix there.”  Additionally, the individuals with autism “had more trouble fixing their eyes on the ball.”

Kuhn hopes to repeat the experiment with children on the spectrum, as they may have had less coaching in attending to social cues.

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