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What blame can tell us about autism

Anne Trafton, MIT News Office Feb 1,2011

In the mid-1980s, a team of autism researchers theorized that one of the major features of autism is an inability to infer the thoughts of other people. This skill, known as theory of mind, comes naturally to most people — we are constantly evaluating other people’s mental states and trying to determine what they know, what they want and why they are happy or sad, angry or scaredRead the article


Though there is much anecdotal evidence that this skill is impaired in autistic people, it has been difficult to show it experimentally in adults. Now, a study from MIT neuroscientists reveals that high-functioning autistic adults appear to have trouble using theory of mind to make moral judgments in certain situations.

Specifically, the researchers found that autistic adults were more likely than non-autistic subjects to blame someone for accidentally causing harm to another person. This shows that their judgments rely more on the outcome of the incident than on an understanding of the person’s intentions, says Liane Young, an MIT postdoctoral associate and one of the lead authors of the study, which appears in the Jan. 31 online edition of theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For example, in one scenario, “Janet” and a friend are kayaking in a part of the ocean with many jellyfish. The friend asks Janet if she should go for a swim. Janet has just read that the jellyfish in the area are harmless, and tells her friend to go for a swim. The friend is stung by a jellyfish and dies.

In this scenario, the researchers found that people with autism are more likely than non-autistic people to blame Janet for her friend’s death, even though she believed the jellyfish were harmless.

Young notes that such scenarios tend to elicit a broad range of responses even among non-autistic people. “There’s no normative truth as to whether accidents should be forgiven. The pattern with autistic patients is that they are at one end of the spectrum,” she says. Young’s co-lead author on the paper is former MIT postdoctoral associate Joseph Moran, now at Harvard.



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