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Are Some People With Autism Primed to Experience Anomalies?

Strange reports by kids with high-functioning autism raise intriguing questions.

Key points

  • Recent research suggests that individuals with high-functioning autism may be more likely to report anomalous perceptions.
  • Gifted children and people who are highly empathetic may also be more likely than most to report anomalous perceptions.
  • One research team even suggested that “anomalous perception may be experienced by the majority of high-functioning adults” with autism.

This past summer, I came across a most curious report. A family in central California drove into the mountains and stopped to have lunch. That’s when their day started to veer wildly from what they’d planned. As they were eating, their 3-year-old son Kadyn began talking to someone. Pointing to a spot in a nearby meadow, he informed his parents that a woman was lying face down, unable to speak or move. “He flat out told us, ‘Mom, she’s dead; she needs our help,'” said his mother. “That’s when I got the goosebumps.”

Kadyn, described a woman in a black shirt, with blue jeans and blue hair. He said that she’d been “shooted by a bad man.” His parents checked out the meadow but saw nothing. So spooked were they by what their young son insisted, they decided to end their recreation day early and head home. Once there, they posted on Facebook. A Madera County Sheriff’s deputy saw the post and contacted them to investigate—since a woman matching Kadyn’s description had gone missing for more than two weeks in that vicinity. Sandra Johnsen-Hughes had been camping alone in the Sierra National Forest; authorities found her crashed car and a “quite disheveled” campsite but, despite an extensive search, no sign of her. Nor was any further trace found when the deputy took Kadyn and his family back to the meadow. However, Kadyn identified the woman in 3 out of 4 photos that he was shown.

While this report is open to questions (e.g., Was the boy’s account driven by an over-active imagination?; Might he have been coached by his parents for publicity purposes?), it aligns with more systematic evidence that certain kinds of people—synesthetes, gifted children, people who are highly empathetic, children with sensory processing disorder, and at least some individuals with autism—are more likely than most to report anomalous perceptions.

In recent years, several scientific papers have examined such experiences in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). One study was quite large, with nearly 800 participants. A second study found self-reported anomalous experiences significantly higher among a ‘neurodiverse’ group (primarily individuals with high-functioning autism) than a ‘neurotypical’ group. A third study directly compared the extent of anomalous perceptions reported by individuals with high-functioning autism against a matched, non-autistic group. Of the former, 41% said that their anomalous perceptions had been spontaneous and recurrent since childhood. A fourth research team went so far as to suggest that “anomalous perception may be experienced by the majority of high-functioning adults” on the autism spectrum.

In my next post, we'll see how children with high-functioning autism may be primed to have even more puzzling perceptions.