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Magic gives Autism insight

28 October 2010

Magic trick performed by gloved hands

People with autism are more likely to be taken in by magic tricks than previously thought, according to new research involving the University.

Professor Susan Leekam of the University’s Wales Autism Research Centre, Anastasia Kourkoulou, School of Psychology and Dr Gustav Kuhn of Brunel University suspected that because people with autism have trouble interpreting social cues, they would be less likely than people without the disorder to be fooled by magic tricks.

To test their prediction they used the vanishing-ball illusion; a magician throws a ball in the air a few times. On the last throw, the magician pretends to throw it and looks upwards while the ball remains concealed in his hand, but observers still think they "saw" the ball leaving the hand. This misdirection depends on social cues; the audience watches the magician's face instead of the ball.

For the research study, 15 teenagers and young adults with autism spectrum disorder and 16 without watched a video of a magician performing the vanishing-ball illusion and were then asked to mark where they last saw the ball on a still image of the magician.

The last place it appeared was in the magician's hand, but many people mark a position higher up and say that the magician threw the ball. Dr Kuhn and Professor Leekam expected that the individuals with autism would use the social cues less than typically developing individuals, and would keep their eye on the ball rather than the magician's face, realising that it didn’t leave the hand on the last ‘throw’.

Their findings, published in the journal Psychological Science revealed that contrary to their prediction, the people with autism were much more likely to be fooled by the trick and think the magician had thrown the ball. When the researchers examined where their eyes had looked, they found that, like typically -developing people, they looked first at the magician's face—but their eyes took longer to move there. They also had more trouble than the other group in keeping their eyes on the moving ball when it was thrown for real.

Professor Leekam said: "Our evidence challenges the idea that adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder have general social-attention difficulties. In our study, people with autism show typical attention to social cues but they had problems in rapidly allocating attention both to people and to moving objects. Complex situations like the magic trick may create serious perceptual challenges."

The research was conducted with students at a special college for autism. The team hope to repeat the experiment in children with autism, who may not yet have been educated in social cues, to see if they are also taken in by the illusion.

Related links

  • Wales Autism Research Centre (WARC)