People with autism have social difficulties and this manifests in simple psychological tests – for example, if you ask them to look at photographs of faces, they will typically spend less time looking at the eye region. But what about if we turned things around and asked autistic people to take photographs of other people – what might this reveal?
That’s exactly what a team of US researchers has done for a small study in Current Biology, and they found autistic people chose to take “strikingly different” kinds of photograph from neurotypical controls – for example, they took fewer photographs of people posing, facing the camera, and more repetitive photographs of objects. Tellingly, people with autism actually took more photographs of other people than did the controls, challenging the mistaken notion that all autistic people are unsociable and uninterested in others.
Shuo Wang at the California Institute of Technology and his colleagues recruited 16 participants diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (12 men; average age 30) and 21 neurotypical controls matched for age and IQ. They gave each of them a camera and invited them to “take photos of anything they wanted, such as objects, rooms, scenery, or people, and they could take as many photos as they wished”. There was no time limit but the researchers asked the participants to take their photos in three “conditions” – indoors and of people in the lab; indoors in the lab, but not of people; and outdoors.
Autistic people took more photos of people, and spent more time photographing people, than the controls. But their photos of people were different from those taken by the controls, in that they frequently depicted a person who was not posing or expressive, or looking at the camera – in fact they often took pictures of bodies without the face in the frame. Autistic people also took more photos from unusual angles, more repetitive and incomplete shots of objects, more pics of geometric shapes, and took more blurred, tilted and occluded photos. These differences were not due to group differences in photography experience.
Trained clinicians were able to look at the photographs taken in the study and determine with above chance accuracy whether the photographer was autistic or a control. Non-clinicians were unable to make this judgment accurately.
We ought to treat these findings with caution – as the researchers said, this was a small study, and the instructions to participants were vague so it’s not clear how they interpreted the purpose of the exercise. Are these the kind of photographs the participants would usually take for themselves, or were they attempting to communicate something of their experience to the researchers?
That said, I was struck by the finding that autistic participants took a greater quantity of portrait photographs, and that they spent more time photographing people. Wang and his team said “These findings challenge theories that trace atypical social cognition in ASD to a reduced interest or motivation in people.” Indeed, the idea that autistic people are inherently unsociable or uncaring is a harmful myth. Like everyone else, autistic people vary in personality – for instance, in their levels of extraversion and friendliness. A difficulty taking other people’s perspective is a key part of the diagnosis, but low empathy or concern for others is not.
Sample photos reproduced from the Supplementary Materials of Wang et al, 2016.