Think of the times when you’ve had to carry out a repetitive, boring task. Now recall how quickly your mind began to wander.

That is a significant problem in many real-world jobs, and is a special challenge for Transportation Security Administration baggage screeners at airports, who have to look at hundreds of X-rayed bags, trying to pick out dangerous objects from jumbles of hair dryers, toiletries, socks and shoes.

It may be, though, that one group is naturally better suited to this task — people with autism.

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A study published this year by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Minnesota found that men with high-functioning autism were just as accurate and almost as fast as typically developing people in finding weapons in X-ray images of baggage.

More important, their performance improved as time went on, particularly in correctly identifying bags that had no weapons.

Senior author Marlene Behrmann, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon, said “we were able to demonstrate statistically that the individuals with autism stayed more true to the task compared with people who became distracted more easily.”

The study is part of a growing push to find jobs that people with autism may actually perform better than so-called neurotypical individuals.

In the case of airport baggage screeners, past tests have shown they often miss planted weapons or bombs. Researchers say part of the reason may be a psychological phenomenon known as the “prevalence effect” — we aren’t very good at spotting things that only come along every once in awhile.

In the CMU-Pitt study, the 13 men without autism got worse as time went on at identifying bags that had no weapons, while the men with autism actually got better.

The authors suggested three possible reasons: people with autism may just be better at visual searches; they “may not get bored as quickly with an individualistic detail-oriented task;” and they may be more anxious about failing.

“It is not difficult to describe tasks that present disproportionate hurdles for individuals with (autism),” the authors wrote. “However, a more optimistic view — and the one that we take in this paper — is that ASD individuals have unique abilities that can give them an advantage over others at performing some tasks.”

© 2013 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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