Autism may include aptitude for analogy

Contrary to what had been thought, young people with autism recognize and compare relationships among objects in scenes

Children with autism have difficulty forming social relationships. But they discern relationships among objects in visual scenes surprisingly well, indicating a fundamental grasp of analogical reasoning, according to a new study.

Youngsters diagnosed with autism, or autistic disorder, reason about the relations between objects and people on a par with kids free of any developmental problems, psychology graduate student Kinga Morsanyi of the University of Plymouth, England, and psychologist Keith Holyoak of the University of California, Los Angeles report in an upcoming Developmental Science.

“Our findings indicate that the basic ability to reason analogically is intact in autism,” Morsanyi says.

In addition to social difficulties, autistic disorder is characterized by impaired communication and a preference for strict routines. Related developmental problems are referred to as Autistic Spectrum Disorders.

Some researchers had thought that difficulties in planning and in thinking symbolically could obstruct analogical thinking in some people with autism. And a proposal known as the theory of weak central coherence holds that people with autism focus on details of what they encounter rather seeing the big picture.

Yet in the new study, kids with autism discerned the overall context of visual scenes and relationships within those scenes, Morsanyi says.

“This finding is quite important and adds to the growing body of evidence that cognitive deficits in autism are not yet properly defined,” remarks psychologist Laurent Mottron of H´pital Rivière-des-Prairies in Montreal. His team has found in previous studies that autistic individuals score well on a test that taps the ability to infer rules about geometric patterns (SN: 7/7/07, p. 4 ). Mottron regards autism as a variant of healthy brain development and prefers the term “autistic” to “person with autism.”

Psychologist Uta Frith of University College London disagrees, regarding autism as a developmental disorder. The new study doesn’t show how youngsters with this ailment managed to solve visual analogy problems or whether they can solve written analogy problems, says Frith, a codeveloper of the theory of weak central coherence.

In the April Neuropsychologia, Frith and her colleagues presented a revision of the weak central coherence theory. Their evidence suggests that only some people with autism—the roughly one-quarter who possess unusually large heads and brains, a sign of disturbed neural development—focus excessively on details. “It’s possible that participants with autism in the new study aren’t particularly detail-focused,” Frith says, and thus could grasp analogies within the bigger picture.

No kids with autism studied by Morsanyi and Holyoak had unduly large heads. But another study with the same group of children finds that they do become detail-focused on verbal tasks, Morsanyi says. Focus on details in autism may thus be more complex than first thought, in her view.

The team’s new investigation included 23 children with autism and 49 children with no developmental issues. Participants’ ages ranged from 11 to 16. Both groups scored within the normal range on verbal and nonverbal intelligence tests.

Youngsters with autism performed as well as comparison kids on two analogy tasks. One task presented pictures in an “A is to B as C is to ?” format. In one example, a sandwich and a lunchbox appeared together, next to a hammer and a question mark. Children completed the analogy by selecting from four additional pictures that included the correct response—a toolbox.

A second task required finding analogies between pairs of scenes. In one case, a line drawing showed a baby monkey hanging onto an adult monkey that in turn hangs onto an elephant’s upraised trunk. Children then had to identify something that corresponded to the adult monkey in a second drawing, which showed a girl hanging onto a woman who in turn hangs from a tree limb.

Even if the second drawing contained a distracting element, such as the adult monkey from the first drawing, children with and without autism generally made a correct analogy, choosing the woman.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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