This Optical Illusion Could Help Scientists Detect Autism Traits

New research has shown observing people look at this simple optical illusion can help determine autistic traits.
Jessica Miley

An optical illusion GIF has been revealed to be a new tool in helping diagnose autistic traits. Researchers from Australia and Italy have published a study that describes how the gif of a spinning column can be used by medical experts to screen for autistic traits.

The study emphasizes this is only one tool among many in diagnosing the complex condition and is no means a standalone definitive test. The test works on the premise that a person's pupils change size depending on whether they are looking at dark or light images.

This Optical Illusion Could Help Scientists Detect Autism Traits
Source: Turi et al./eLife

GIF used to analyze how subjects understand images

This can be in turn used to analyze where a person's attention is focused. The images used in the test shows a sheet of white dots moving in one direction and a sheet of black dots moving in the other direction.

For most people who observe the GIF, it will look like a 3D cylinder of dots moving in rotation But the way that people come to that conclusion differs.

Some people need to focus on the white dots to observe the phenomenon, others the black dots, others can see the image in its entirety and observe the whole GIF and all its dots at once. As your eyes try and decipher the image your pupils are doing different things.

Study uses questionnaire to support hypothesis

For those that examine the dots separately, changing from looking at the black dots to the white dots will make their pupils expand and contract rapidly. If you are looking at the image for a while though, your pupils will remain a more consistent size.


As part of the autistic screening, test subjects were first asked to complete a questionnaire, a higher score on the form meant respondents were more likely to show autistic traits. Following the questionnaire, the subjects were presented with the GIF and their pupil's responses were measured.

The researchers found that the people whose pupils oscillated when they looked at the rotating cylinder had also scored higher on the questionnaire making them more likely to display autistic tendencies.

Autistic people inclined to be more detailed orientated

One theory about this is that autistic minds are more detail orientated and so will examine the image as a combination of dots rather than a whole image. The researchers are keen to continue their research to see if similar pupil fluctuations occur in people already diagnosed with autism.

The authors of the study believe that the pupil changes will be even starker in people who have clinically diagnosed autism. They believe that with the further study, this test could become an important tool for assisting the diagnosis of people with autism.

The research was published in eLife.

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