The Perception of Animacy in Young Children with Autism
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Visual perception may be a developmental prerequisite to some types of social understanding. The ability to perceive social information given visual motion appears to develop early. However, children with autism have profound deficits in social cognitive function and may fail to see social motion in the same way that typically developing children do. We tested the hypothesis that children with autism fail to discriminate animate motion, using a novel paradigm involving simple geometric figures. The subjects were 23 children with autism (c.a. 70.7 mos.), 18 children with other developmental disabilities (c.a. 68.2 mos.), and 18 typically developing children (c.a. 46.4 mos.). Children saw two circles moving on a screen and were rewarded for identifying the one that moved as if animate. A control condition required children to identify the heavier of two objects. Children with autism initially showed a deficit in categorizing objects as animate (though no deficit on the control task), but showed no deficit in this ability after they had reached criterion in the training phase. These results are discussed in terms of the social orienting theory of autism, and the possibility that animacy perception might be preserved in autism, even if it is not used automatically.
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