According to a “new” study, autistic children are more trusting than their neuro-typical peers. These children tend to believe what they are told, and be more likely to blindly trust information provided to them by both people they know and strangers.
About the Study
Li Yi, Ph.D, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China conducted a study to examine the trust and retaliatory deception in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).” Yi’s study consisted of two experiments in which they observed the behaviors of 22 children with autism spectrum disorders, 27 neuro-typical children, and 26 IQ-matched neuro-typical controls participate in a game to find a hidden prize. The children were presented with three boxes to look in for a reward sticker. In the first part of the experiment an adult stranger looked in the boxes and indicated in which box the sticker could be found. All of the autistic children looked in the box indicated. Conversely, only half of their neuro-typical peers looked in the box indicated by the adults. Upon repeating this experiment the children with autism still showed the tendency to believe the adult who repeatedly deceived them.In the second part of the experiment, the children hid the stickers in one of the three boxes while the adults were out of the room. This time the adult looked in the boxes and pointed to incorrect box indicating where the sticker could be found. Now, just like their neuro-typical peers, the autistic children looked in the correct box
Yi concluded that, “Although 7-year-old ASD children did not blindly trust all information provided by the informant, they were significantly more trusting” than their peers. Additionally, Yi concluded that the ASD children were less likely to retaliate against the deceptive adult by trying to deceive them. These children were less flexible, and tended to be unable to generalize this distrust and transfer it to other situations.
Why Are ASD Children More Trusting?
Although there may be many reasons that contribute to this phenomenon, I believe the answer is two-fold; a combination of literal concrete thinking and deficits in Theory of Mind. The autistic child tends to take language literally, which is because of their brains think in concrete “black and white” terms. They will take what you say to them at face value not looking deeper, or catching social clues, or subtle hints of deception. This is what brings us to looking at deficits in Theory of Mind as another reason for this over-trusting nature. The ASD child who has Theory of Mind deficits has difficulty contemplating what someone else is thinking or feeling. These children often do not realize that other people may have intentions or motives other than their own. Therefore, if they didn’t think of deceiving you, your deceiving them would never cross their mind. ASD children (and adults) may be more susceptible to repeated deception because they are often unable to generalize—taking knowledge from one general situation and incorporating into another. For example, the adult that deceived them about where the sticker prize was located may be able to deceive them in different circumstances because the ASD child will not take the general information (this person lies to me) and apply it to other situations.
It comes as no surprise to me that a study finally highlighted this susceptibility to deception. A combination of Theory of Mind deficits, literal thinking, and the inability to generalize can often leave an ASD child vulnerable. Unfortunately, this is a tendency that can be carried into adulthood. Children are not the only ones susceptible to this deception. Autistic adults are also prone to deception. It is their first instinct to believe what they are told, and takes effort to remember to always question the information they are given.
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