Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 36, Issue 8, pp 983–992 | Cite as

The Perception of Animacy in Young Children with Autism

  • M. D. Rutherford
  • Bruce F. Pennington
  • Sally J. Rogers
Original Paper


Visual perception may be a developmental prerequisite to some types of social understanding. The ability to perceive social information given visual motion appears to develop early. However, children with autism have profound deficits in social cognitive function and may fail to see social motion in the same way that typically developing children do. We tested the hypothesis that children with autism fail to discriminate animate motion, using a novel paradigm involving simple geometric figures. The subjects were 23 children with autism (c.a. 70.7 mos.), 18 children with other developmental disabilities (c.a. 68.2 mos.), and 18 typically developing children (c.a. 46.4 mos.). Children saw two circles moving on a screen and were rewarded for identifying the one that moved as if animate. A control condition required children to identify the heavier of two objects. Children with autism initially showed a deficit in categorizing objects as animate (though no deficit on the control task), but showed no deficit in this ability after they had reached criterion in the training phase. These results are discussed in terms of the social orienting theory of autism, and the possibility that animacy perception might be preserved in autism, even if it is not used automatically.


Autism Perception Animacy Theory of mind Intentionality 


  1. Abell, F., Krams, M., Ashburner, J., Passingham, R., Friston, K., Frackowiak, R., Happe, F., Frith, C., Frith, U. (1999). The neuroanatomy of autism: A voxel-based whole brain analysis of structural scans. Neuroreport, 10(8), 1647–1651.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Baron-Cohen, S. (1989). Joint-attention deficits in autism: Towards a cognitive analysis. Development and Psychopathology, 1, 185–189.Google Scholar
  3. Baron-Cohen, S. (1991). The theory of mind deficit in autism: How specific is it? British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 9, 301–314.Google Scholar
  4. Baron-Cohen, S. (1995). Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  5. Baron-Cohen, S. (2002). The extreme male brain theory of autism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6, 248–254.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Baron-Cohen, S., Allen, J., & Gillberg, C. (1992). Can autism be detected at 18 months? The needle, the haystack, and the CHAT. British Journal of Psychiatry, 161, 839–843.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Berry, D. S., & Springer, K. (1993). Structure, motion, and preschoolers’ perceptions of social causality. Ecological Psychology, 5, 273–283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bertenthal, B. I. (1993). Infants’ perception of biomechanical motions: Intrinsic image and knowledge-based constraints. In Visual perception and cognition in infancy (pp. 175–214). Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  9. Bertenthal, B. I., Proffitt, D. R., Spetner, N. B., & Thomas, M. A. (1985). The development of infant sensitivity to biomechanical motions. Child Development, 56, 531–543.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Blake, R., Turner, L. M., Smoski, M. J., Pozdol, S. L., & Stone, W. L. (2003). Visual recognition of biological motion is impaired in children with autism. Psychological Science, 14, 151–157.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Buitelaar, J., van Engeland, H., de Kogel, K., de Vries, H., & van Hoof, J. (1991). Differences in the structure of social behaviour of autistic children and non-autistic retarded controls. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 32, 995–1015.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Castelli, F., Frith, C., Happe, F., & Frith, U. (2002). Autism, Asperger syndrome and brain mechanisms for the attribution of mental states to animated shapes. Brain, 125, 1839–1849.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Csibra, G., Gergely, G., Biro, S., Koos, O., & Brockbank, M. (1999). Goal attribution without agency cues: The perception of “pure reason” in infancy. Cognition, 72, 237–267.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Cuccaro, M. L., Cope, H., Donnelly, S., Wolpert, C., Gabriels, R., Wright, H. H., Abramson, R. K., Koch, A. A., Gilbert, J., & Pericak-Vance, M. A. (2004). The repetitive behavior phenotype in autism: Age-related changes. American Journal Of Medical Genetics Part B-Neuropsychiatric Genetics, 1, 101.Google Scholar
  15. Cutting, J. E., & Kozlowski, J. T. (1977). Recognizing friends by their walk: Gait perception without familiarity cues. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 9, 353–356.Google Scholar
  16. Dasser, V., Ulbaek, I., & Premack, D. (1989). The perception of intention. Science, 243, 365–367.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Dawson, G., Meltzoff, A., Osterling, J., Rinaldi, J., & Brown, E. (1998). Children with autism fail to orient to naturally occurring social stimuli. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 28, 479–485.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Dittrich, W. H., & Lea, S. E. G. (1994). Visual perception of intentional motion. Perception, 23, 253–268.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Gergely, G., Nadasdy, Z., Csibra, G., & Biro, S. (1995). Taking the intentional stance at 12 months of age. Cognition, 56, 165–193.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Grossman, E., Donnelly, M., Price, R., Pickens, D., Morgan, V., Neighbor, G., & Blake, R. (2000). Brain areas involved in perception of biological motion. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 12(5), 711–720.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Happe, F., Ehlers, S., Fletcher, P., Frith, U., Johansson, M., Gillberg, C., Dolan, R., Frackowiak, R., & Frith, C. (1996). ‘Theory of mind’ in the brain. Evidence from a PET scan study of Asperger syndrome. Neuroreport: An International Journal For Rapid Communication of Neuroscience Research, 8, 197–201.Google Scholar
  22. Hashimoto, H. (1966). A phenomenal analysis of social perception. Journal of Child Development, 2, 1–26.Google Scholar
  23. Heider, F., & Simmel, M. (1944). An experimental study of apparent behavior. American Journal of Psychology, 57, 243–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Klin, A. (2000). Attributing social meaning to ambiguous visual stimuli in higher-functioning autism and Asperger syndrome: The Social Attribution Task. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 41, 831–846.Google Scholar
  25. Lord, C., Risi, S., Lambrecht, L., Cook, E. H., Jr., Leventhal, B. L., DiLavore, P.C., Pickles, A., Rutter, M. (2000). The autism diagnostic observation schedule-generic: a standard measure of social and communication deficits associated with the spectrum of autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 30(3), 205–223.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Lord, C., Rutter, M., & LeCouteur, A. (1994). Autism diagnostic interview–revised: A revised version of a diagnostic interview for caregivers of individuals with possible pervasive developmental disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 24, 659–685.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Michotte, A. (1963). The perception of causality. Oxford: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  28. Miles, J. H., Takahashi, N., & Mudrick, J. D. (2000). Repetitive behaviors differentiate autism subgroups. American Journal of Human Genetics, 67, 588.Google Scholar
  29. Moore, D. G., Hobson, R. P., & Lee, P. W. (1997). Components of person perception: An investigation with autistic, non-autistic retarded and typically developing children and adolescents. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 15, 401–423.Google Scholar
  30. Morris, M. W., & Peng, K. (1994). Culture and cause: American and Chinese attributions for social and physical events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 949–971.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Mullen, E. (1989). Mullen scales of early learning. Cranston, RI.: T.O.T.A.L. Child, Inc.Google Scholar
  32. Mundy, P., & Neal, R. A. (2001). Neural plasticity, joint attention, and a transactional social-orienting model of autism. In L. M. Glidden (Ed.), International review of research in mental retardation: Autism (pp. 139–168). San Diego, CA, US: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  33. Mundy, P., & Sigman, M. (1989). The theoretical implications of joint-attention deficits in autism. Development and Psychopathology, 1, 173–183.Google Scholar
  34. Mundy, P., Sigman, M., & Kasari, C. (1990). A longitudinal study of joint attention and language development in autistic children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 20, 115–128.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Mundy, P., Sigman, M., Ungerer, J., & Sherman, T. (1986). Defining the social deficits of autism: The contribution of non-verbal communication measures. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry & Allied Disciplines, 27, 657–669.Google Scholar
  36. Osterling, J., & Dawson, G. (1994). Early recognition of children with autism: A study of first birthday home videotapes. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 24, 247–257.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Premack, D. (1990). The infant’s theory of self-propelled objects. Cognition, 36, 1–16.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Ricks, D. M., & Wing, L. (1975). Language, communication, and the use of symbols in normal and autistic children. Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia, 5, 191–221.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Rime, B. (1985). The perception of interpersonal emotions originated by patterns of movement. Motivation and Emotion, 9, 241–260.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Rochat, P., Morgan, R., & Carpenter, M. (1997). Young infants’ sensitivity to movement information specifying social causality. Cognitive Development, 12, 441–465.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Rumsey, J. M., & Hamburger, S. D. (1988). Neuropsychological findings in high-functioning men with infantile autism. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 10, 201–221.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Rutherford, M. D., & Rogers, S. J. (2003). The cognitive underpinnings of pretend play in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 33(3), 289–302.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Rutherford, M. D., Young, G. S., Hepburn, S., & Rogers, S. (in press). A longitudinal study of pretend play in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.Google Scholar
  44. Scambler, D. J., Rogers, S. J., Rutherford, M. D., & Wehner, E. A. (in press). Emotional responsivity in children with autism and other developmental delays. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.Google Scholar
  45. Scholl, B. J., & Tremoulet, P. (2000). Perceptual causality and animacy. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4, 299–309.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Tremoulet, P., & Feldman, J. (2000). Perception of animacy from the motion of a single object. Perception, 29, 943–951.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Ungerer, J., & Sigman, M. (1981). Symbolic play and language comprehension in autistic children. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 20, 318–337.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Wheaton, K. J., Pipingas, A., Silberstein, R. B., & Puce, A. (2001). Human neural responses elicited to observing the actions of others. Visual Neuroscience, 18, 401–406.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • M. D. Rutherford
    • 1
  • Bruce F. Pennington
    • 1
  • Sally J. Rogers
    • 1
  1. 1.McMaster UniversityHamiltonCanada

Personalised recommendations