Autism Study Could Find Answers in Magic

"If I am attacked, I need to see what's going on," she said. "It's faster for me to see where you are looking than to wait for you to describe verbally what's going on.

"Autistic people don't respond to those cues. This deficit is one of the utmost characteristics and important predictors of how an autistic child will function as an adult cognitively and socially."

When measuring the eye movements of autistic children watching movies, researchers discovered that they don't look at the human faces, they look at random objects on the screen.

Magicians use hand and eye gestures to create cognitive illusions, misdirecting attention away at the critical moment. If the brain isn't able to follow those gestures at the critical moment, the magician cannot manipulate the attention.

One example of a cognitive illusion is manipulating "inattentional blindness," Martinez-Conde said.

A classic example is a demonstration in which spectators are asked to watch a movie and count the passes of two basketball players -- one in a black shirt and one in white -- tossing the ball to each other.

"It's a difficult task," Martinez-Conde said. "The balls are flying past and you have to keep track constantly.'

But when a researcher in a gorilla suit walks across the stage beating his chest and walks away, most people are shocked that they didn't see the animal.

"A huge unexpected event occurs right in front of your gaze and goes completely unnoticed," she said.

It was at such a lecture that a person approached Martinez-Conde and said, "'You know what, I did see the gorilla but I have autism. I wonder if it has anything to do with it.' I knew then we had something important on our hands," she said

Magicians Help in Autism Research

About a dozen magicians have joined the researchers, including Apollo Robbins, known as the "gentleman pickpocket."

He made his name in a Las Vegas act eight years ago for stealing the wallets of Secret Service agents protecting former President Jimmy Carter.

"They came to the show at Caesar's Palace and the manager told me I was not allowed to shake Carter's hand, and if I was going to steal anything, it would be from the Secret Service," he said. "I took their credentials and their keys."

Robbins, who was later asked to help police learn how thieves worked, estimated that he has successfully picked a quarter-million pockets in his career.

"My signature style is to tell people before I do it: "What time do you have? In three minutes, I'll be wearing your watch.

"When my hand came out of the pocket and I created a red herring with my hand," Robbins said. "I have to quickly gauge where there interest and attention is."

By a half-arch of the hand and eye movements, Robbins said, he "instinctively draws attention even if I told them it was going to happen."

Robbins can tell when someone in his audience has high-functioning autism, like Asperger syndrome, or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

"I have to pull the attention more," he said. "It's like throwing a ball and trying to get the dog to go after the ball. You don't pretend, but you have to pay attention and account for and adjust what you are doing."

The researchers' findings may also lead to treatments for other neurological conditions like brain trauma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and Alzheimer's disease.

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