Autism spectrum disorder among adults: The recognition of suspicious activity

Author: Rebecca Flower

Flower, Rebecca, 2017 Autism spectrum disorder among adults: The recognition of suspicious activity, Flinders University, School of Psychology

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While it has been suggested that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may be vulnerable to naïve criminal involvement due to particular features associated with the disorder, no empirical research has been conducted to assess such a possibility. Two features associated with ASD have been suggested as impairing their ability to detect individuals behaving suspiciously: theory of mind (ToM) deficits and restricted interests (RIs). If these features impair the ability to detect suspicious activity, individuals with ASD may have heightened vulnerability to a number of negative outcomes, one of which may be unwitting criminal involvement. It is proposed that ToM deficits may hinder one’s ability to recognise suspicious behaviour, and the presence of an intense RI may further impair this ability.

To explore whether ToM deficits and RIs influence the ability to detect suspicious behaviour a two phase study was conducted with 182 individuals participating in the first phase, and 101 individuals with a full scale intelligence quotient (IQ) above 85 participating in the second phase. All participants had a diagnosis of ASD and were aged between 16 and 78 years. In Phase 1, participants completed tasks assessing ToM, RIs, and IQ. Between phases, 16 audio scenarios were created for each participant. Half of the scenarios were tailored to include references to each participant’s unique RI, and half made no mention of their RI. Eight scenarios were designed to make listeners increasingly suspicious and culminated in criminal activity. The remaining scenarios served as controls and were similar, but not designed to arouse suspicion, and did not culminate in criminal behaviour. Participants were asked to press response buttons ‘May be suspicious’, ‘Definitely suspicious’, ‘No longer suspicious’

and/or ‘Nothing was suspicious’ while listening to scenarios. Latency of each button press was recorded as a measure of ability to detect suspicious behaviour.

There was some evidence to support the first hypothesis regarding ToM and response latency. While correlations between ToM and latency were in the hypothesised direction, few results were statistically significant. When examining the first button pressed by each participant (whether ‘May be suspicious’ or ‘Definitely suspicious’) correlations between ToM and latency were stronger. Further, when examining ToM scores of individuals who pressed ‘Definitely suspicious’ as their first button, those who pressed the response button after the scenario ended had lower ToM scores in all scenarios than individuals who pressed the response button during the scenario. While these differences were not statistically significant, the sample sizes were relatively small and effect sizes ranged from small to large.

There was limited evidence to support the second hypothesis regarding RIs moderating any relationship between ToM and response latency. There were no differences in response latency between scenarios with and without references to each participant’s RI. Further, participants reported less difficulty attending to scenarios involving their RI. While there were a number of limitations to the current study, and limited statistical significance, this study is the first to provide empirical evidence that there may be some kind of relationship between ToM and the ability to detect suspicious behaviour.

Keywords: Adult, Asperger's, Autism spectrum disorder, Criminal, Interests, Suspicious, Theory of mind, Vulnerable

Subject: Psychology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2017
School: School of Psychology
Supervisor: Professor Robyn Young