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Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
September 15, 2023 ·  4 min read

This optical illusion may help identify autistic traits in seconds

In recent years, researchers have been exploring different avenues to better understand and detect Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). One such endeavor involves a novel optical illusion that has the potential to shed light on the cognitive differences associated with ASD. By examining how individuals perceive the motion of black and white dots, scientists hope to gain insights into the detail-oriented thinking style often observed in individuals on the autism spectrum. (1)

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits in social communication and interaction, as well as restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. Common symptoms of ASD can include difficulties with social interaction, restricted interests, repetitive behaviors, sensory sensitivities, and challenges with communication and language skills. (2)

The features of ASD typically appear in the first two years of life, although some children may not be diagnosed with autism until later. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 1 in 36 U.S. children has been diagnosed with ASD as of 2020. There are many traits associated with Autism; however, having some of these traits doesn’t necessarily mean that one has the disorder. Understanding the traits, however, can lead to earlier diagnosis and, therefore, better patient treatment and outcomes.

The Role of Attention to Detail

One distinctive trait noticed in those with ASD is attention to detail and focusing on specific elements rather than the overall context. This cognitive style often leads to a preference for routine, specialization in specific subjects, and heightened sensory perception. Understanding this characteristic in more detail could provide valuable insight into the underlying mechanisms of ASD.

Read: Overthinking Is Bad For Your Health. It’s Time to Get Out of Your Own Head

The Optical Illusion and its Implications

The optical illusion under study presents black and white dots that can be perceived either as two separate sheets moving in different directions or as a column that appears to be spinning. This experiment allows researchers to observe variations in perception and cognitive processing between individuals with and without ASD. If you view the dots as two separate sheets moving, it’s because you’re focused on one shade and then the other. You are picking each out as distinct details of unconnected scenes – a very detail-oriented view.

If you see the illusion as a spinning column, then you are seeing bigger picture and recognizing the illusion as a single system. One shade (most likely white) is seen as the front of a dot moving across the face of a column before flipping over at the edge and appearing as the other shade (black) on the inner surface. While you may be capable of switching back and forth to see both, people whose brains reflect the traits more associated with ASD will typically see it easier as two moving sheets. Again, if you see it that way, this does not necessarily mean that you have Autism.

The Study

Researchers conducted a study involving 50 adults with no ASD diagnosis. Instead of asking the participants what they saw, however, the researchers paid close attention to their eyes. If their focus was on the layers as separate details, their pupils would flicker as they adjusted to the two different shades of light. Next, they had the participants fill out a questionnaire to test for the presence of other autism-related traits and characteristics.

Findings and Significance

As predicted, the more detail-focused group who tended to see the illusion as two sheets passing each other also ranked higher for other autism-related traits. Again, however, it is important to note that this is still not a diagnostic tool, and diagnosing people wasn’t the researcher’s goal. Rather, it was to see how an ASD brain might work and correlate that information with other indicators to help predict ASD.

These findings suggest that the attention to detail characteristic of individuals with ASD extends even to visual information processing. The optical illusion provides a unique insight into the cognitive differences associated with the disorder. Beyond understanding the fundamental mechanisms of ASD, this research may also contribute to developing new diagnostic tools and interventions.

The exploration of visual perception through optical illusion has offered a fascinating perspective on the cognitive processes associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder. By elucidating the attention to detail characteristic, researchers have taken a step towards better understanding the complexities of the disorder. Further investigation in this area may pave the way for improved diagnostic methods and targeted interventions, ultimately enhancing the lives of individuals on the autism spectrum.

Keep Reading: How a Lack of Alone Time Affects the Mental Health of Moms


  1. Pupillometry reveals perceptual differences that are tightly linked to autistic traits in typical adults.” elife Science. Marco Turi, et al. March 6, 2018 
  2. Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder.” CDC