According to a new study people with autism spectrum disorder are actually more likely to be taken in by the vanishing ball trick, where a magician pretends to throw a ball in the air but actually hides it in his hand.
In the trick, the magician looks up while the ball remains concealed in his hand. But observers claim to "see" the ball leaving the hand. This misdirection depends on social cues; the audience watches the magician's face.
People with autism are known for having trouble interpreting social cues, so Gustav Kuhn of Brunel University and his coauthors Anastasia Kourkoulou and Susan R. Leekam of Cardiff University thought they could use magic tricks to understand how people with autism function.
For this experiment, 15 teenagers and young adults with autism spectrum disorder and 16 without autism watched the trick. Then they were asked to mark where they last saw the ball on a still image of the magician.
The team found that people with autism were much more likely to think the magician had thrown the ball. They also found that, like normally developing people, they looked first at the magician's face-but their eyes took longer to fix there.
They also had more trouble fixing their eyes on the ball.
"What we suggest is that individuals with autism have particular problems in allocating attention to the right place at the right time," Kuhn said.
Kuhn would like to repeat the experiment in children with autism, who may not yet have been educated in social cues, to see if they are also taken in by the illusion.
The results are published in Psychological Science.