Young children with autism are more trusting than other children

Young children with autism have difficultly deliberately deceiving other people, now a new study has shown that they are also more trusting than their neurotypical peers. These two characteristics may be related to the same underlying cause – namely, difficulty representing the mental states of others (known as “Theory of Mind”), although more research is needed to demonstrate this.

Li Yi and her colleagues tested 22 children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD; average age 7), 27 neurotypical age-matched controls, and 26 IQ-matched neurotypical controls (average age 6). The children chose which of three boxes to look in for the reward of a sticker. When an adult stranger first looked in the boxes and indicated which box the sticker would be found, nearly all the children with autism looked in that box. By contrast only just over half the age-matched and IQ-matched neurotypical controls did so.

In another condition, the children hid the sticker in one of the boxes while one of the researchers was out of the room. On returning, this researcher pointed to an incorrect box as the location of the sticker. Again, the children chose which box to look in for the reward. This time the children with autism, just like the neurotypical controls, nearly always looked in the correct box (where they themselves had placed the sticker). This shows that their trust is not unqualified. It is specifically when they lack knowledge themselves that they are more trusting of other people.

Yi and her team said “to the best of our knowledge, our findings are the first to report ASD children’s trusting tendency during the early years.” They advised that more research is needed to explore the reasons for autistic children’s high levels of trust. Apart from problems with Theory of Mind, other possible reasons include a tendency to forget previous instances of adults lying; or conversely, perhaps they tend to experience encounters with more trustworthy adults than neurotypical children do. Another avenue for future research, Yi’s team said, is to look for ways to teach children with autism not to be excessively trusting.


Yi L, Pan J, Fan Y, Zou X, Wang X, and Lee K (2013). Children with autism spectrum disorder are more trusting than typically developing children. Journal of experimental child psychology, 116 (3), 755-61 PMID: 23810631

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

6 thoughts on “Young children with autism are more trusting than other children”

  1. I'm not sure that people with ASD can be more trusting, because surely trust means believing that someone else's intentions are aligned with your own. So the ability to trust is dependent on mind reading skills and awareness of the difference between one's own thoughts and another's. I would have thought it more accurate to say that ASDs are more suggestible, because they are less able to evaluate others' mental states.

  2. This was definitely true of me! And it was true until a ridiculously advanced age — I think I only started having the inkling that other kids might be lying to me when I was 11, but even then I would usually go with, “nah, that's silly, why would they lie?” and believe them anyway.

    This was even when the other kid was trying to get me to believe something transparently absurd — a favorite of some boys in my class was to say there was a flying clown behind me. I would almost always look, even though I knew there couldn't really be one.

  3. “Yi and her team said “to the best of our knowledge, our findings are the first to report ASD children's trusting tendency during the early years.”

    This is weird because I remember reading of several cases of overly trusting aspies in books by major writers. I can't remember exactly who but I haven't read any obscure literature so it must be someone like Uta Frith, Tony Attwood or similar.

  4. My friends used to trick me like that well into my late teens because they knew as was so naive. Once in a hotel when the drapes were a bit stuck one of them told me that it couldn't be moved because the are controlled centrally from the foyer. So I walked down and asked them to come up to the third floor and pull our drapes for us. Which one of them did although he looked confused.

    For what it's worth: I'm not an aspie and I have no strong tendency to interpret things literally (none at all at the time of the hotel incident). But I think I share a certain truth over harmony with aspies, that maybe has something to do with this.

  5. I too find that odd–Yi thinking that her team was the “first” to report this phenomena. I talk about being too trusting extensively in my book, Twirling Naked in the Streets and No-One Noticed; Growing Up With Undiagnosed Autism.

    I also discussed this about a year and a half ago in a blog post titled Liar Liar Pants on Fire; Why do we believe them?

    A previously posted here mentioned that in order to trust the child with autism must be able to mind-read, and understand others intentions but that is not really true. The trust is coming from the exact opposite–the inability to read other people and the tendency to take words literally, and at face value.

    If someone we know, love, trust, respect…tells us something, we will automatically believe what they say without questioning it first. Not to say this is always the case, but it is the first instinctual scenario. If we did not think to lie to this person, then surely they wouldn't lie to us.

    Even, as I discuss in article (blog post) Liar Liar, when we KNOW they lie to us, our first inclination is to believe them.

Comments are closed.