A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Fall, 2017 | Number 4, Volume 31

New research supports “magic world” hypothesis of autism

A new study presented at the 2017 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting supports the theory that some of autism’s core features stem from an inability to detect patterns and predict the future. Individuals with such a deficit may find social situations challenging and be hypersensitive to sensory stimuli. 

“We sometimes affectionately call this the magical world theory of autism,” MIT researcher Pawan Sinha commented to the Los Angeles Times in discussing an earlier, related study. “The hallmark of a magical performance is the surprise, the unpredictability of the outcome. Although for a brief period of time, a magic show might be pleasurable, if one is constantly immersed in that kind of a magical world, one can begin to get overwhelmed.” 

In the new study, Wasifa Jamal, Sinha, and colleagues repeated the same beep 300 times at a regular pace (once per second), recording the brain responses of 10 children with ASD and 21 neurotypical children as they listened to the beeps. The researchers found that while the neurotypical children habituated normally to the noise, as shown by a reduction in brain activity spikes, many of the children with autism did not. In fact, some children’s brain responses actually intensified. 

Jamal comments, “They can’t disengage with the stimulus. They can’t tune it out.” 

The researchers next conducted a different experiment, showing the children a checkerboard pattern that flashed on a screen once every second for 300 seconds. Again, the neurotypical children habituated normally to the stimulus, while the children with ASD did not. This indicates, the researchers say, that impairments in habituation in ASD affect more than one sense. 

The researchers also found that children with more severe autism showed greater impairments in habituating to the beeps than children with milder features. However, there was no relationship between autism severity and habituation to the checkerboard pattern.


“Study of recurring beeps supports ‘magical world’ theory of autism,” Sarah DeWeerdt, Spectrum, November 12, 2017. Wasifa Jamal and colleagues presented their unpublished findings at the 2017 annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. Address: Wasifa Jamal, MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139.

 —see also— 

“Is autism like a magic show that won’t end?” Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times, October 6, 2014.