Autistic Adults Are Sensitive to Social Agency When Interpreting Patterns and Forming Predictions.
Humans are remarkably sensitive to patterns arising from the behaviour of social partners. This skill allows an understanding of the preferences and choices of others, and is thought to arise from theory of mind (ToM) processing. However, individuals with a diagnosis of an autism spectrum condition (ASC) typically show deficits in ToM processing, and are also insensitive to detecting patterns derived from the behaviour of social partners. Sensitivity to social stimuli and the ability to recognise patterns of social behaviour is critical to the development of adaptive social behaviours. Consequently, impairments in these abilities may have far reaching consequences for a person’s integration as a member of a social group.
The aim of this study was therefore to investigate whether autistic adults are sensitive to, and use information regarding social agency when forming predictions.
Autistic (n=29, m=35.9, SD=12.4) and Neurotypical (NT) participants (n=27, m=36.7, SD=11.2) completed a prediction task during which they had to infer selection preferences from an animation of a red cursor. The agency of the cue was manipulated across two parts of the study; in the first part it was described as a computer algorithm, and in the second half as representing the eye movements of another participant.
A 2x2 mixed model ANOVA revealed a main effect of condition (F(1,54)=10.096, p=.002, ηρ²=.158), as the proportion of correct responses was greater in eye movement condition (M=.68, SD= .13) compared to the computer algorithm condition (M=.61, SD=.12 ). However, there was no condition x group interaction (F(1,54)=.014, p=.906, ηρ²=.000), demonstrating that both neurotypical and autistic participants were significantly more accurate when they believed that the cue represented the eye movements of another participant.
This therefore provides evidence that adults with an ASC show the same social facilitation effect as neurotypical adults and can more accurately predict another’s choices when granted access to social information. This suggests that whilst autistic adults may show deficits in social behaviours this does not arise from a lack of sensitivity to social agency, or from an inability to form predictions of social behaviour on the basis of social agency.