Autism Study Could Find Answers in Magic

Autistic children who can't spot social clues aren't fooled by magic tricks.

November 3, 2009, 6:17 PM

Nov. 10, 2009— -- The magician placed a coin atop an airtight rubber seal on a cup and -- abracadabra -- the shiny piece fell to the bottom of the cup.

But he didn't fool 8-year-old Stephen Shore, who was the only one among his fellow Boy Scouts who saw through the magic trick.

"People didn't see the slit in the piece of rubber," said Shore, now 48 and an assistant professor of special education teacher at New York's Adelphi University. "I went up and just kind of pushed my finger into the slit."

Illusions are the stock and trade of magicians but researchers at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Ariz., want to know why people like Shore, who fall along the autism spectrum, are not so easily fooled.

Shore has lived his entire life with autism, a neurological disorder often marked by joint-attention deficits, or difficulty reading social signals; the same kind that a magician deliberately uses to throw attention away from the deception.

"Someone on the autism spectrum is looking exactly where the magician doesn't want him to look," Shore said.

Scientists Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik, co-authors of the upcoming book "Neuro Magic," are seeking funding to begin research that they hope will use magic as a tool for the diagnosis and treatment of autism -- despite some parents' fear that such research is too limited in scope.

"What magicians do is get people to attention with an incredible degree of depth and labor," said Macknik, director of Barrow's Laboratory of Behavioral Neurophysiology.

"Misdirection is a bit of a misnomer -- that the magician is trying to get you not to pay attention," he said. "But that's not the case. They want to control where you are especially paying attention."

An estimated 1 in 150 children -- or about 1 percent of all children -- are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The CDC considers autism an urgent public concern and says the sheer numbers warrant a concerted national response.

But, so far, there are no medical tests so doctors must rely on a child's behavior to make a diagnosis, usually by age 2. Early detection is key, experts say, so children can get intervention therapies.

Martinez-Conde, the study's lead investigator, has devoted her research to eye movements in the field of visual neuroscience.

Humans share information and grasp the thoughts and intentions of others through eye contact and gestures. Long before infants speak, they communicate and learn by following the gaze of others and use their own eye contact and gestures to direct those around them.

Autistics Have Joint-Attention Deficits

"Joint attention" is a term psychologists use to indicate how people pay attention jointly in social situations.

When one person gestures or uses his or her eyes to point, the other's eyes reciprocate and follow, unconsciously. Magicians take advantage of this instinct to covertly misdirect attention.

"When someone walks down the street and looks in the direction of something, they are going to get a circle of people looking up pretty soon," Martinez-Conde said.

Scientists think humans are hard-wired for these directional eye movements, which are important for survival.

"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.

"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.

Skeptics Worry About How to Help Autistic Kids

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.

For more information go to the Autism Society of America and Autism Speaks.