"The thing that is most intriguing is the potential ramifications for learning in general in individuals without autism," said Dr. Michael Noetzel, chief of neurology at St. Louis Children's Hospital. "Anything that sheds light on how the brain allows us to learn is potentially useful."
"It's not help with magic tricks, it's helping them in other learning situations," he said of the possibilities.
Stephen Shore, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2, when his speech stopped altogether, is excited that research might help.
For years, doctors thought his autism was psychosis and he was nearly institutionalized. But his enlightened parents gave him what is now called "intensive home-based early intervention," and today he teaches those who will teach children with autism.
He is an accomplished statistician and an accomplished musician. Most of the lingering effects are sensory: Shore can't bear tight clothing, bright inset lighting and loud sounds.
But his joint attention is the most aggravating, especially non-verbal gestures.
"We take for granted that people point in a direction and people follow suit," said Shore, who frequently travels as a member of the board of the Autism Society of America and often seeks directions at busy airports.
"I cannot determine exactly what they are pointing at; a doorway or a sign or something else," he said. "It seems to happen a lot, not picking up on something everyone else picks up on."
Still, there are skeptics who say children with autism are variable in their abilities and joint-attention research does not solve the larger question of how to help them.
"When I heard about the magic research, I rolled my eyes a bit," said Susan Etlinger, a San Francisco mother whose 6-year-old son was diagnosed with autism spectrum as a toddler.
"It's only one of the symptoms and the way in which it is manifested is so broad across children," said Etlinger, who writes the Family Room Blog. "It could be anything from social quirkiness to something more intense.
"You could throw 50 kids into the same magic show, as well as typically developing kids, and you don't know what to conclude."
Children who have joint-attention deficits struggle with the stereotype that they "have no feelings and are robotic," Etlinger said.
"They're just not able to express them in a conventional way," she said. "They deserve respect and need to be met halfway and we need to have a more flexible understanding of what communication is."
Click here to see video clips from the Magic of Consciousness Symposium.