Autistic children's exceptional visual search skills may not translate into everyday life

21 Dec 2010 12:30:39.283

PA 363/10

It is well established in scientific studies that children with autism repeatedly outperform typically-developing children on a range of visual search skills. However, researchers have shown, for the first time, that this talent does not necessarily translate into real life situations.

A unique study, published today December 20 2010 in journal PNAS, addressed a question which, until now, has almost exclusively been assessed using computer-based or table top behavioural tests.

Using a set of tests devised by Dr Alastair Smith from The University of Nottingham and carried out in a purpose built laboratory — an automated ‘foraging room’ — the team of psychologists from the Institute of Education, The University of Nottingham, Bangor University, and the University of Bristol were able to create tasks that required participants to search large scale space and learn about its properties. These are skills that are critical to achieving independence in adulthood and underlie everyday behaviours such as searching for a lost bunch of keys or finding carrots at the grocery store. The study revealed that when faced with large-scale search tasks the children’s exceptional visual search skills did not translate to more everyday search behaviour.

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Dr Smith said: “I am interested in the processes that allow us to search, navigate, and represent our position in the world around us. Our research has demonstrated the surprisingly unsystematic nature of foraging behaviour in children with autism. For the first time, and contrary to previous research, we have shown that their everyday functional behaviour — the ability to explore and exploit one’s environment — may be limited by a specific pattern of constraints in their cognitive repertoire.”

The research involved 20 school-age children with autism and 20 age and ability-matched typical children. In the “foraging room”, with numerous possible search locations embedded into the floor, the children were instructed to search an array of locations to find a hidden target as quickly as possible. Crucially, the target was more likely to be in one part of the room, which required participants to learn about the properties of the space. Contrary to predictions from previous research, autistic children’s search behaviour was much less efficient than that of typical children.

Dr Smith said: “To forage successfully, participants must be able to orientate themselves effectively in space and to remember where they searched previously within the space. Neither of these skills are as important in classic small-scale visual search paradigms and so we must be sure to explore abilities across a full range of tasks and environments if we are to fully understand the pattern of strengths and weaknesses in autism.


The University of Nottingham has a broad research portfolio but has also identified and badged 13 research priority groups, in which a concentration of expertise, collaboration and resources create significant critical mass. Key research areas at Nottingham include energy, drug discovery, global food security, biomedical imaging, advanced manufacturing, integrating global society, operations in a digital world, and science, technology & society.


Through these groups, Nottingham researchers will continue to make a major impact on global challenges.


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Notes to editors:  The University of Nottingham, described by The Times as “the nearest Britain has to a truly global university”, has award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the QS World University Rankings.

The University is committed to providing a truly international education for its 39,000 students, producing world-leading research and benefiting the communities around its campuses in the UK and Asia.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranked the University 7th in the UK by research power.

The University’s vision is to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health.

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Images: please credit Dr Alastair Smith, The University of Nottingham

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More information is available from Dr Alistair Smith on +44 (0)15 9515365,

Lindsay Brooke

Lindsay Brooke - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5751 Location: University Park

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