Connecting the social and the spatial

Amy Shelton, a cognitive psychologist, shows the windmill display at her Johns Hopkins University office.
Amy Shelton, a cognitive psychologist, shows the windmill display at her Johns Hopkins University office.(Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun)

Amy Lynne Shelton has a closet full of toys at the Johns Hopkins University cognitive psychology lab: Wooden human figures with movable joints, Lego and model train buildings, toy cameras and wooden triangular blocks — some with eyes, some without. Each has its role to play in research shedding light on the possible relationship of social grace and sense of physical space, work that might eventually help people who suffer the social difficulties common in autism spectrum disorder.

Shelton, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, led a team that has published results in the Journal of Experimental Psychology and is ready to submit for publication a fresh round of trials adding new variables — and new toys — to the experiment.

The published study suggests a link between higher social skill and the ability to see the world from another person's point of view. Shelton, whose work has focused largely on how the brain processes spatial relationships, said the connection seems clear, even if the reason why remains to be seen.

"I'm very confident" about the correlation, Shelton said, but the experiment did not examine causation. "The correlations don't tell us why. We don't know why the social skills predict" how well subjects will do in seeing objects from different points of view, particularly when that point of view merely approximates a human perspective — a faceless wooden human figure rather than, say, a wooden triangle.

The experiment is conducted at a laboratory setup that might be a surrealist sculpture.

Three Lego buildings — a police station, windmill and a tower — stand on a circular platform two feet across. At a recent visit to the lab, the buildings are surrounded by seven faceless wooden human figures, each 13 inches tall with heads painted different colors, standing equal distance apart.

At a desk in front of this tableau there's a laptop computer, the screen showing pictures of different views of the Lego structures. The question: from which perspective is the view taken? From the blue-headed figure? From the red?

Simple enough questions, but the researchers added complications. They've switched the human figures with wooden triangles and with little toy cameras. Also, the participants completed a written test meant to identify five key personality traits associated with autism spectrum disorder: social skill, ability to shift attention, attention to detail, communication and imagination.

Shelton said the results were surprising, and consistent through three separate trials with 48, 54 and 72 test subjects. In each instance, the accuracy of the answers about the view of the buildings hinges on two factors: the results of the "Autism Quotient" test and the object from which the point of view was being taken — the "perspective" of the triangle, the camera, or the wooden figure.

Those who scored highest for social skills on the "AQ" test did better finding the perspective of the human figure — about 10 percent higher — than those who scored low. Performance on the perspective task did not vary this way for the other personality traits, Shelton says.

"Social skill is the relationship that held up over the three" trials, Shelton says. The subjects in each trial were equally divided between men and women and were described in the journal article as "healthy young adults," none having been diagnosed with autism.

Previous studies have shown that the presence of a person in a scene affects how people interpret spatial relationships, but this one differs in that it measures accuracy and ties accuracy to a measure of social skill.

Dr. Stewart H. Mostofsky, who runs a laboratory at Kennedy Krieger Institute that focuses on the neurological basis of developmental disorders, including autism, called the study "interesting and further informative," suggesting possible treatment for people with autism spectrum disorder.

Specifically, he said it suggests that training on spatial perspective could be a way to help autistic people improve social skill.

Indeed, Shelton said, the study raises that possibility, but it's too soon to say for sure.

Her team is preparing to publish another study that considers the boundary between the human and the non-human element. They've reached into the toy closet for triangles with eyes and Barbie dolls. Then, she said they want to try the experiment with people who have been diagnosed as autistic.

"We have some work to do," Shelton says.


Amy Lynne Shelton

Johns Hopkins University, associate professor, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences

Research interests: spatial cognition, learning and memory; spatial skill development; neurodevelopmental disorders.

Education: Vanderbilt University, M.A., Ph.D. in cognitive psychology; Illinois State University, B.S. in psychology.