Small Study Suggests that Adults with Autism Excel at Screening Tasks

Date: 
October 10, 2013
Promising results from research aimed at helping individuals build on autism’s strengths to overcome its challenges

Many autism researchers and advocates have argued that a successful transition to adulthood often hinges on building on autism’s strengths to overcome its challenges. Along these lines, a new study led by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that security baggage screening may offer such an opportunity.

The idea that individuals with autism might excel at such a task stems from earlier research showing that many do extremely well at “visual search” tests. (Think “Where’s Waldo?”)

In the new study, the researchers recruited 26 men, ages 18 to 45, half of whom had autism. They created an artificial baggage screening task using X-ray images of luggage, some of which contained security targets such as knives, guns and sharp objects. They instructed the men to report whether they saw a particular target item in each X-ray. (See images below right.)

Without time limits, each participant screened 320 bags, divided into blocks of 40 bags, with a new target introduced at the beginning of each block.

Over the 30 minutes or so it took to complete the task, the men with autism matched the other men in their ability to find targets. But they soon surpassed those without autism in how fast they accurately recognized that an X-ray image contained no targets. In fact, they got better and better at excluding target-free images over the course of the test. By contrast, the other men got worse. Such “attention fatigue” is a common and serious problem among professional airport baggage screeners, the researchers point out.

“We were able to demonstrate statistically that the individuals with autism stayed more true to the task compared with people who became distracted more easily," says senior researcher Marlene Behrmann.

“So much research focuses on documenting the deficits and problems associated with autism,” comments Drexel University’s Paul Shattuck. “Asking whether there are unique strengths can inform our efforts to improve employment and quality of life.” Dr. Shattuck, who was not involved in the study, has pioneered research into the needs of young adults with autism. In 2012, his Autism Speaks-funded research revealed that more than half of young adults with autism remain unemployed and unengaged in higher education in the two years after high school. This “no participation” rate was higher than that of any other disability group in the study – including young adults with intellectual disability.

The authors of the new report caution that their study was too small and the task too short to make clear conclusions about real-life job success. They call for further research with more volunteers and more-realistic work conditions.

Editor’s note: Adult support and services are a major part of Autism Speaks’ mission. Learn more about these programs on this website’s Adult Services page. You can also download the Autism Speaks Adult Employment Tool Kit, free of charge.