Young children with autism have difficultly deliberately deceiving other people, now a new study has shown that they are also more trusting than their neurotypical peers. These two characteristics may be related to the same underlying cause - namely, difficulty representing the mental states of others (known as "Theory of Mind"), although more research is needed to demonstrate this.
Li Yi and her colleagues tested 22 children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD; average age 7), 27 neurotypical age-matched controls, and 26 IQ-matched neurotypical controls (average age 6). The children chose which of three boxes to look in for the reward of a sticker. When an adult stranger first looked in the boxes and indicated which box the sticker would be found, nearly all the children with autism looked in that box. By contrast only just over half the age-matched and IQ-matched neurotypical controls did so.
In another condition, the children hid the sticker in one of the boxes while one of the researchers was out of the room. On returning, this researcher pointed to an incorrect box as the location of the sticker. Again, the children chose which box to look in for the reward. This time the children with autism, just like the neurotypical controls, nearly always looked in the correct box (where they themselves had placed the sticker). This shows that their trust is not unqualified. It is specifically when they lack knowledge themselves that they are more trusting of other people.
Yi and her team said "to the best of our knowledge, our findings are the first to report ASD children's trusting tendency during the early years." They advised that more research is needed to explore the reasons for autistic children's high levels of trust. Apart from problems with Theory of Mind, other possible reasons include a tendency to forget previous instances of adults lying; or conversely, perhaps they tend to experience encounters with more trustworthy adults than neurotypical children do. Another avenue for future research, Yi's team said, is to look for ways to teach children with autism not to be excessively trusting.
Yi L, Pan J, Fan Y, Zou X, Wang X, and Lee K (2013). Children with autism spectrum disorder are more trusting than typically developing children. Journal of experimental child psychology, 116 (3), 755-61 PMID: 23810631
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.