Social space

People with autism aren’t the only ones who struggle to assume the perspective of others. Typical young people who are socially adept have good spatial skills — but only when asked to see things from the perspective of human-like objects.

By Deborah Rudacille
16 August 2011 | 3 min read
This article is more than five years old.
Neuroscience—and science in general—is constantly evolving, so older articles may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.

According to a famous song, the world would be a better place if we could all walk a mile in one another’s shoes.

It turns out that’s a lot easier to do if you have good social skills.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore report that people who are socially adept have significantly better spatial skills than their less socially endowed peers when asked to assume the physical perspective of a human-like figure. But when they try to assume the perspective of an object, the socially skilled lose their edge. They are no better or worse at this task than others.

Although researchers carried out the study, reported online 25 July in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, in typical young adults, they used the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) to assess the participants’ social and communication skills.

They also gauged the participants’ performance on a mental rotation test, in which three-dimensional objects have to be rotated in space. People with autism tend to perform well on this task.

The researchers showed the 48 study participants, aged 18 to 22 years, a model of buildings constructed from Lego blocks. They then arranged various figures — wooden dolls, toy cameras and colored plastic triangles — around the models.

The researchers presented the participants with computer images taken from the perspective of one of the figures, and asked them to identify the figure whose perspective was displayed in the image. The altered images were arranged in groups: first the dolls, followed by the cameras and then the triangles.

Reminiscent of the Frith-Happé animations, in which people assign personalities to moving triangles, the study seemingly measures a physical correlate of theory of mind, the ability to infer the beliefs, desires and intentions of others.

Participants who were quick to respond to one set of objects (e.g., dolls) were quick to respond to others — but their accuracy varied among the different sets of objects, the study found. Those with better social or communication skills were far more likely to correctly assume the perspectives of the dolls than those of the cameras or triangles.

Interestingly, the dolls did not have faces, so they did not offer any clues by pointing in a particular direction.

It’s interesting to see social factors operating in a seemingly objective task like spatial perspective. I suspect that people with autism, with their affinity for objects, might prove equally adept at adopting the perspective of the camera and the triangles in this experiment.

Personally, I think the study reinforces the notion that there is no sharp line dividing those who have autism from the rest of us. Even among so-called ‘neurotypicals,’ some people are just better than others at seeing life from another’s perspective.