Individuals with autism are more likely than others to assign blame based on a situation’s negative outcome — whether or not malice was intended — a new study suggests.

The reason: people with autism tend to have poor use of a skill known as “theory of mind.” This ability, which is generally developed in children by age 5, helps establish moral judgment by allowing a person to understand that bad things can happen without bad intent.

In the study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers presented a group of 26 adults — half with autism and half without — a series of hypothetical scenarios.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

In one case, participants were told about two friends kayaking in the ocean. “Janet” tells her friend that it’s okay to swim after reading that the jellyfish nearby are harmless. But Janet’s friend ends up dying after being stung by a jellyfish while swimming.

Those with autism were more likely to fault Janet for the death even though she didn’t intend to harm her friend.

“There’s no normative truth as to whether accidents should be forgiven. The pattern with autistic patients is that they are at one end of the spectrum,” said Liane Young, a researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who co-authored the study.