Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often exhibit a heightened ability to pick out patterns and excel at other visual-spatial tests. But a new study puts this presumption to the test in a more real-world scenario and finds that ASD kids are actually found wanting when it comes to search skills.

The stereotype that ASD children are good with patterns and searching have been based largely on small-scale tests, such as computer- or table-top-based assays. But these tests "fail to model abilities in the larger-scale context that is typical of everyday life, including finding carrots in the grocery store, looking for one's keys in the kitchen," noted researchers in the new study, which was published online December 20 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers instructed 20 children (aged 8 to 14 years) with autism or Asperger syndrome and 20 typically developing kids to individually search a test room where one of 16 spots included a hidden target. These targets were on one side of the room in 80 percent of the 40 hunts each child did, and normally developing kids were quick to pick up on the pattern. Those with ASD, however, seemed to struggle both with detecting the underlying probability of the target's location—and with optimizing their own searching pattern.

The apparent searching deficit was not likely linked to disinterest in the activity, as the researchers noted that "all children found the foraging game enjoyable and were eager to find the hidden target as quickly as they could." The team suggested instead that the ASD children have a hard time applying rules of probability to larger environments—especially those in which they have to physically orient themselves and navigate.

The findings could have implications for individuals with ASD as they conduct their lives in the real world.

"The ability to work effectively and systematically in these kinds of tasks mirrors everyday behaviors that allow us to function as independent adults," Josie Briscoe, of the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol, said in a prepared statement. Although the research highlights an apparent deficit in ASD children, it also "offers an exciting opportunity to explore underlying skills that could help people with autism achieve independence."

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/Nick_Thompson