Autistic Minds Work More Rationally
> 10/16/2008 2:04:08 PM

Unknowing observers often see autistic individuals as introverted, obsessive and “out of the loop” - as if living in their own self-made realities. But their minds actually play a far more considered role in their actions than those of their unaffected peers. They think more rationally. And while this fact often makes them appear aloof and confounds their ability to express empathy, it also leads to greater talent in the realms of statistics, analysis and effective gambling.

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology examined a set of their own studies and concluded that autistic individuals make more rational decisions when presented with a set of choices at the gambling table. Before playing a win/lose game, study subjects were told that they could either accept $20 of a $50 total or bet the entire sum in an all-or-nothing move. Their most important conclusion: presentation swayed unaffected subjects far more than autistic individuals. They were more likely to place their bets when the play-it-safe option was presented as a $30 loss rather than a $20 net gain. When researchers spoke of the $20 choice as a sure thing and its alternative as a risky gamble, more subjects decided to cut their losses and take the lesser sum. After performing the study again with autistic individuals, researchers found that the presentation factor was less than half as influential among the affected group, who carefully examined the odds before making their decisions.

The survey reveals that the reasoning processes of autistic individuals play a far more active role in their decision-making processes. This fact makes them extremely effective gamblers who are unlikely to reveal their hands with physical tics or unintentional displays of emotion and it lends credence to the idea that autistic people are more capable of performing objective analyses of given data. The amygdalas of unaffected subjects became abnormally active when presented with the game's central choice while autistic brains remained calm and unruffled. Because the amygdala serves as the brain’s emotional regulator and responds dramatically to certain cues, larger conclusions can be drawn from this finding. Researchers determined, most importantly, that autistic individuals are less heavily influenced by the emotional surges responsible for the dreaded “gut reaction.” Such subconscious reliance on emotional cues biases subjects toward a certain response, and this "framing effect" drives political strategies and sales pitches. Prefacing a phone poll question with dramatic assertions biases responders and leaves them more likely to answer in a certain way. Following the same logic, advertisers and salesmen attempt to prompt favorable biases by presenting their products in the most appealing ways possible and associating them with various emotional cues. Autistic individuals are less likely to fall prey to these behaviors because of their inability to be swayed by cues designed to disturb or excite.

Since the subjects in this study were all diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, its results may not necessarily apply to the larger autistic population. But the most important point to be drawn from its conclusions goes beyond statistics and simulated gambling: in order to counter the public perception of autistic individuals as hopelessly disabled, researchers and spokespeople should emphasize some of the condition’s more positive symptoms. This study can be seen to reveal the fact that affected individuals are more reliable decision-makers. We may see a trend toward portraying them as eccentrics with unusual skills and an amazing capacity for observation and analysis as well as a freedom from the inflamed passions that lead to potentially disastrous "gut” decisions. Not only is this assertion supported by the collected data, it just might work to reduce the "outsider" status that plagues so many autistic individuals. It's certainly a start.

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