Children with Autism: Good at White Lies, Not Good At Covering Them Up

Published on: 2010/10/12 - in News

Queen’s University has conducted one of the first scientific studies examining lying and children with autism.

The study was conducted by Queen’s psychology professor Beth Kelley, and developmental psychology PhD student Annie Li – with assistance from Dr. Kang Lee, who has dedicated much of his research in the Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto to the development of lying.

The Queen’s University study found that children with autism will tell white lies to protect the feelings of others and to maintain relationships, but are not good at covering up those lies.

Dr. Kelley was surprised by the study’s results.  “There is a notion that children with autism have difficulty appreciating the thoughts and feelings of others,” she said. “So we didn’t expect them to lie to avoid saying things that may hurt others.”

To test this, children with autism were told they were going to get a great gift, but were then handed a bar of soap. When the tester asked the participants if they liked their gift, most nodded or said yes, rather than voicing their disappointment.

In a second portion to the study, children were presented with audio clues and asked to guess what hidden object was making the sound. Most children guessed the ones with easy clues – ie. a chicken when they heard a chicken clucking.

However, an intentionally difficult clue (Christmas music and an Elmo doll) was utilized as a test for lying.

After the sound was played, the tester left the room. After a short time – enough to allow the children to peek behind the curtain – the tester returned and asked the participants if they had peeked at what produced the audio clue.

Both children with and without autism were equally likely to lie and claim they hadn’t looked. 14 of the 15 children with autism who took a peek said they didn’t, as did 13 of the 15 typically developed children who peeked.

But when they were asked to guess what the hidden object was, all but one of the children with autism (of the ones who looked) gave a correct answer, while only 7 of the 13 typically developed children who peeked answered correctly – they were much more likely to pretend they didn’t know, by guessing something else to cover up the fact they lied about looking.

Participants in this test included 19 children with autism and 30 typically developing children. The study has also been accepted for publication to Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.


Photo source courtesy David Reber’s Hammer Photography