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Preferring Objects over People: The Autism Mystery

"Why is it that children on the autism spectrum seem to prefer objects (e.g., toys, games, digital devices, machines, etc.) rather than relationships with people?" 

To answer this question, we must first look at the concept of "weak predictive ability"...

If one has the ability to predict, he or she can come up with an educated guess about what may happen in the near or distant future (i.e., some outcome is expected), but this ability is not necessarily based on experience or knowledge.

Prediction is a skill that allows us to “generalize” (i.e., since the occurrence of “situation A” resulted in “outcome B,” then a situation similar to “A” will likely result in an outcome similar to “B”).  For example, after observing enough moving objects, a child can understand momentum and, through generalizing, predict the position of a moving target in the near future. Likewise, after seeing enough human faces, a child can generalize (or predict) that human faces all have similar parts in a nearly fixed spatial layout. 

Prediction not only affords quicker and more accurate reaction, but also more efficient neural coding. For instance, after learning the common face structure of human beings, a child’s brain can store an average face and encode individual faces only as deviations from the average. This is more efficient than encoding individual faces fully.

Children with autism spectrum disorder have poor predictive abilities (i.e., they have great difficulty predicting future events). However, the impairment from a weak predictive ability is not limited to time. Autistic kids also have difficulty with face-processing (called “face-blindness”). In other words, they have difficulty recognizing the faces of those they don’t know well. Face-blindness is a neurological disorder that makes facial recognition difficult or impossible. Research suggests that up to two-thirds of ASD kids have difficulty recognizing faces until they have interacted with a particular person on a number of occasions.

Weak predictive ability can also contribute to ASD kids’ sometimes dangerous behaviors since they can’t fully “predict” serious consequences of certain actions (e.g., running their heads into walls, running out into a busy street, wandering off alone, etc.). In addition, poor prediction of bodily movements (and sensory consequences of such movements) can contribute to their weak sense of “body boundary” (e.g., they may violate other’s personal space by standing too close to them).

Another function of prediction is to fill-in missing information (e.g., if the driver in front of you veers his car sharply to the left and then to the right, you might “predict” that he swerved in order to avoid hitting something in the road). Thus, autistic kids’ impaired predictive ability means impaired filling-in of missing information for perception and action.

So, what does “weak predictive ability” have to do with preferring objects to people?

Since children on the spectrum have to live everyday with the uncertainty inflicted by their poor prediction skills, they tend to favor relatively predictable and precise events and tasks. Wouldn’t you? As a result, they like to play with objects (which are more predictable) instead of with people (which are less predictable – and I think you would agree that people are very unpredictable). Objects like computer games, trains, bridges, and spinning wheels that autistic children are attracted to represent stimuli that are both interesting AND predictable.

Due to difficulties with generalization skills, kids with ASD have a lower tolerance for unpredictability and complexity. They argue that objects are predictable and simple, whereas people are not. Thus, they gravitate toward objects. 

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD
==> Pressed for time? Watch these "less-than-one-minute" videos for on the go.

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