Children with autism are neither systematic nor optimal foragers

E Pellicano, AD Smith, F Cristino, BM Hood, J Briscoe, ID Gilchrist

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

65 Citations (Scopus)


It is well established that children with autism often show outstanding
visual search skills. To date, however, no study has tested
whether these skills, usually assessed on a table-top or computer,
translate to more true-to-life settings. One prominent account of
autism, Baron-Cohen’s “systemizing” theory, gives us good reason
to suspect that they should. In this study,wetested whether autistic
children’s exceptional skills at small-scale search extend to a largescale
environment and, in so doing, tested key claims of the systemizing
account. Twenty school-age children with autism and 20 ageand
ability-matched typical children took part in a large-scale search
task in the “foraging room”: a purpose-built laboratory, with numerous
possible search locations embedded into the floor. Children
were instructed to search an array of 16 (green) locations to find the
hidden (red) target as quickly as possible. The distribution of target
locations was manipulated so that they appeared on one side of the
midline for 80% of trials. Contrary to predictions of the systemizing
account, autistic children’s search behavior was much less efficient
than that of typical children: they showed reduced sensitivity to the
statistical properties of the search array, and furthermore, their
search patterns were strikingly less optimal and less systematic.
The nature of large-scale search behavior in autism cannot therefore
be explained by a facility for systemizing. Rather, children with autism
showed difficulties exploring and exploiting the large-scale
space, which might instead be attributed to constraints (rather than
benefits) in their cognitive repertoire.
Translated title of the contributionChildren with autism are neither systematic nor optimal foragers
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)421 - 426
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number1
Early online date20 Dec 2010
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2011

Structured keywords

  • Memory

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