Children with autism struggle to conceal lies

A Queen’s University study found that “children with autism will tell white lies to protect other people’s feelings and [that] they are not very good at covering up their lies” (Science Daily).  This was the conclusion of a study propelled by psychology professor Beth Kelley and developmental psychology PhD student Annie Li. They conducted two tests for the study.In the first test, “children with autism were told they were going to get a great gift and were then handed a bar of soap.”   Most of the children with autism nodded or said yes instead of telling the researcher that they were disappointed to receive soap instead of a great gift.  Dr. Kelley stated, “The results are surprising, because there is a notion that children with autism have difficulty appreciating the thoughts and feelings of other people, so we didn’t expect them to lie to avoid saying things that may hurt others.”  Kelley’s and Li’s research reveals that children with autism do possess the ability to tell social white lies to protect others’ feelings.

In the second test, “children were given audio clues and asked to guess a hidden object.”  Most test subjects, with and without autism, guessed the easy clues, like a chicken when they heard a chicken clucking.  An intentionally difficult audio clue, Christmas music and an Elmo doll, was used to gauge the ability to lie of children with autism.  The tester left the room after playing the Christmas music, leaving the child alone with the object.  Upon returning, the tester asked the child if he or she peeked at the object.  Children with and without autism “were equally likely to lie that they had not peeked,” but only children without autism realized that giving the correct answer would reveal that they had peeked.  Children with autism were more likely to correctly identify the object, without realizing that knowing the object’s identity would give away that they peeked at the object.

The great news is that children with autism had the presence of mind to consider another person’s feelings and lie about appreciating their gift of soap, despite the fact that they were expecting something far more exciting!  Unfortunately, the test involving audio clues and hidden objects revealed that children with autism were not able to conceal the fact that they peeked at the masked object.  Overall, however, Kelley’s and Li’s study exhibits that children with autism are capable of tuning into others’ feelings, which one might argue is more significant than being able to conceal a lie.

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