1997 brought us the Teletubbies. Tinky-Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po took Europe and America by storm, but experts were concerned a generation of children would grow up with language problems, able only to say "Eh-oh" instead of "Hello". They needn't have worried, but the real psychological damage was going on with the grown-ups. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales sent the nation into a frenzy of grief. Hundreds of thousands of people queued to sign condolence books, left flowers five feet deep at Kensington Palace and converged on London for her funeral. Following her death, rates of suicide and self-harm soared, particularly among British women.
Problems with using language and handling emotions are classic symptoms of a mysterious disorder called autism. Simon Baron-Cohen at Cambridge University is one of Britain's leading experts on autism. He heads the Autism Research Centre and has been researching the condition since the 1980s. As his name suggests, he is related to the comedian Sacha Baron-Cohen who created the characters Ali G and Borat. Also, his grandfather's brother was Robert Greenblatt, who created the contraceptive pill and worked at the Medical College of Georgia at the same time as Thigpen & Cleckley.To understand this study, you need to understand autism, solook at the Autism 101 page here.
OCR has a nice poster summing the study up in a single page (PDF format)
The first 3 minutes of this YouTube video gives a good explanation of the symptoms of autism
This excellent YouTube video features Simon Baron-Cohen interviewing autistic savants
This page has Baron-Cohen's other tests for Autism
Watch Tom Cruise & Dustin Hoffman in this clip from Rain Man
Autism is a puzzling disorder because it seems to involve several different cognitive and behavioural problems that don't seem to be connected:
People with autism often have learning difficulties and low IQ but there is a similar condition called Asperger's Syndrome (AS) which involves autistic-style problems with social interaction but normal-or-higher IQ. These are often grouped together as "Autistic Spectrum Disorders" which currently affect 1 in 110 pre-school children.
Simon Baron-Cohen has tried to identify the CORE COGNITIVE DEFICIT that explains autism - the one fundamental disability that produces the symptoms of autism. One of his ideas has been "mind blindness". Baron-Cohen suggests that children naturally develop a THEORY OF MIND, an ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of other people, but autistic children do not do this. If you have difficulty understanding that other people have their own thoughts and feelings, it would explain why language and social interaction is so difficult for autistic children and why they don't engage in imaginative play (what Baron-Cohen calls "making Second-Order Representations" - pretending that Barbie has a mind of her own).
Baron-Cohen's previous research on children has found a lot of evidence that autism involves lacking a Theory of Mind (ToM). The problem is that all the tests were designed for 6-year-olds and produce a CEILING EFFECT - the tests are so simple that adult participants can pass them using logic and experience even if they suffer from autism. This study introduces Baron-Cohen's new test that will identify mind-blindness in adults.
The researchers are trying to show that a core cognitive deficit lies behind autism - that people with autism lack a fully-functioning Theory of Mind (ToM). If this new "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" Task works, then adults with autism/Asperger's ought to score less than people in the control group.
Baron-Cohen et al. recruited a self-selecting sample of 16 adults with Asperger's Syndrome or Highly-Functioning Autism (HFA). There were 13 men and 3 women, which is representative because autistic spectrum disorders are much more common in men than women. They were all of normal IQ and had answered adverts through the National Autistic Society or through their doctors.
There was a control group of 50 people, half male and half female, all matched for age and with no history of psychiatric disorder and normal intelligence. These people should have a normal ToM and their scores create the baseline against which the AS/HFA group can be compared.
The researchers used another control group of 10 adults with Tourette Syndrome (TS), all matched for age with people in the other two groups. There were 8 men and 6 women - a similar ratio to the AS/HFA group. Tourette Syndrome has some similarities with autism/Asperger' since it develops in childhood, seems to be inherited and interrupts relationships and learning. If the "Eyes Task" only detects disrupted development, then the TS participants ought to score low in it too, but if it really detects the lack of ToM then the TS participants should score normally.
Since these conditions are all naturally occurring, this is a natural or quasi- experiment.
This consists of 25 slides, each showing a photograph taken from a magazine of a human face. The photos are all the same size (15 x 10 cm), black and white and show the region around the eyes, between the bridge of the nose and the eyebrows.
The participants get to view each photo for 3 seconds then answered a FORCED-CHOICE QUESTION - they have to choose, from two mental states printed underneath the picture, which one describs the feelings expressed in the eyes.
Some mental states are "basic" (sad, afraid, etc), some are "complex" (arrogant, scheming, etc). The second mental state is the FOIL of the first - in other words, its opposite, like "calm... anxious" or "friendly... hostile".
The Independent Variable (IV) is which group the participant belongs to - participants with AS/HFA (group 1), participants with no psychiatric disorder (group 2) or participants with TS (group 3).
The main Dependent Variable is the score on the "Eyes Task".
Baron-Cohen et al. carried out another test called the STRANGE STORIES TASK. This was created by Francesca Happé (1994) and is designed to test for ToM in older children. The participant listens to 24 short stories (just a paragraph long) and has to answer two questions about each one: a physical question about what happened in the story and a mental question about the characters' thoughts and feelings. Participants who do badly on the "Eyes Task" should also do badly on the "Strange Stories Task".
This study has a lot of controls to improve the validity. For example, the participants were AGE-MATCHED, meaning that a person in the AS/HFA group was being compared to people in the other groups who were the same age. Baron-Cohen et al. also used the "Strange Stories Task" to check for CONCURRENT VALIDITY (using two tests measuring the same thing and checking if they agree with each other).
Participants in the AS/HFA group were also given two other tasks:
Everyone performed normally on the control tasks (gender recognition and basic emotion).
Participants in the control group and the TS group had no problem with the "Eyes Task" - the mean score was 20/25 and several scored 25/25. Nobody scored less than 16/25.
Participants in the AS/HFA group did much worse at the "Eyes Task". The mean score was 16, the lowest score was 13 and no one scored higher than 23. Baron-Cohen worked out that someone answering randomly should score 15/25 by chance and several AS/HFA participants scored worse than this!
Incidentally, among the control group females tended to score better than males at the "Eyes Task". However, the normal males still scored better than the AS/HFA group.
On the "Strange Stories Task" the TS participants made no mistakes at all, but the AS/HFA participants had difficulties with the "mental questions". In fact, there was a strong CORRELATION between scores on the "Strange Stories Task" and scores on the "Eyes Task" (the lower people scored on one, the lower they tended to score on the other).
The study seems to prove that the "Eyes Task" is a valid measure of ToM and that adults with autism/Asperger's have difficulties with ToM tasks. Since the adults were of normal intelligence (in fact, some had university degrees) it seems that lacking a fully-functioning ToM is quite different from normal intelligence.
The "Eyes Task" is significant because young children with autism often have problems making eye contact or judging from a person's eyes what they are looking at or what they are about to do.
The gender difference in the results is also significant, because autism/Asperger's is much more common in boys than girls. Simon Baron-Cohe went on to explore this difference, arguing that autism is in fact an extreme form of "the male brain". In particular, female brains are structured around empathising abiility (reading the mental states of other people) and male brains are structured around systemising ability (categorising things rather than people). This might explain typically bloke-ish obsessions like trainspotting or football scores which are normal enough habits that resemble the sort of obsessions common in people with autism. It also resembles the differences between the right and left hemispheres oberved in the brain study by Sperry.