Is this Newsweek description of autism accurate?

I recall reading an article in Newsweek , roughly 20 years ago, that described autism using the following example scenario:

Mary has a bunch of marbles. She goes to her bedroom, puts them in a red box, and then leaves the room. Minutes later, John goes into her room, without her knowledge, takes the marbles out of the red box and puts them into a nearby blue box instead. He too then leaves the room.

Now, when Mary returns to her room an hour later, which box will she expect her marbles to be in?

Normal people typically reply, “The red one,” since that’s where she last put them. But autistic people typically reply, “The blue one,” because that’s where the marbles actually are. They can’t see things from Mary’s perspective.

Is this description…accurate?

Looks like this is the Sally-Anne Test. All I know about it is from that Wikipedia article. Something’s going on with autistic kids (not adults, kids) who fail this test, but it’s not entirely clear what it is.


Had no idea it was actually a test with a known name for it.

Cool infographic about the test!

It wildly over-generalizes and oversimplifies.

Yes, it’s true that autistic people have trouble, in general, from taking other people’s perspective, but that scenario is so simplistic, that most people, even autistic people, can reason it out.

The problem with seeing something from another’s viewpoint is not so literal. It has more to do with not being skilled at reading other people’s vocal tone and body language.

An autistic person, for example, who has had some remedial teaching in responding to other people’s comments with questions about the topic they have brought up might respond to someone saying that their dog just died by asking what the dog’s name was. This would be an appropriate question if the person made some mention of having a dog in a neutral context, but in an emotional one, particularly a sad one, it’s appropriate to ask how the other person is feeling, and that’s where a lot of autistic people get derailed.

But even that isn’t going to elude higher-functioning people. It’s worth noting here that “high functioning” mostly refers to language ability. A lot of so-termed people are even more prone to anxiety and over-stimulation than “low-functioning” people.

At any rate, people with very good language may not have intuition for other people’s feelings, but can learn a lot about indicators by watching TV and reading books.

Anyway, anyone who is going to understand the question about where the marbles should be is probably going to be able to figure out that someone who didn’t see them moved doesn’t know where they are. Maybe a child would lag behind in understanding-- an 8-yr-old autistic child might not get it, whereas an NT 8-yr-old surely would.

But to get back to the dog example: a person even with a much-loved dog might have trouble figuring out the other person’s feelings if they’d never lost a dog. However, someone who had, might actually be projected very acutely into the other person’s reality, if they’d experienced the loss before, and painfully.

I knew a little autistic boy who always started crying when he saw other people cry, even if it was on TV. A child crying on a TV show always set him off. He actually had very little language at that point, but he definitely understood some things, and had empathy; once when his mother fell asleep on the couch, he got a blanket and covered her. I watched him do it. He was very gentle, and it was sweet. I don’t know that he was so much worried about her being cold, as he was imitating the behavior of people who had covered him, or that he had seen on TV do this, but the point was that he could learn by imitation, which requires a level of projecting yourself into another person’s place.

Does that answer the question?

I worked for an agency that did supported living services for people, and we had lots of autistic clients, all over the spectrum. I’ve seen it in all sorts of manifestations.

Is it possible it’s more of a child development test, like that autistic individuals are more likely to take longer to develop the skill to answer correctly?

I ask because the one time I’ve heard of this test before is in a child development context, discussing what age the typical child is able to answer the question correctly. I’ve heard it stated as when a child develops a theory of mind.

If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.

It’s a spectrum, and in my experience as a parent of someone on the autism spectrum, it’s not accurate, nor can it possibly be for even a broad set of folks on the spectrum.

There is no simple, single, test or question that can accurately put someone on the spectrum.

You’re example from a 20 year old half remembered article is kinda shit. A neuro typical and a neuro diverse person will all typically reply “the red one” in the absence of evidence to the contrary. WTF, comes up with “the blue one” based on zero changed evidence?

Conclusion from a neuro divergent perspective: you either mis-remembered or mis-represented the article in Newsweek, or the article in Newsweek wrote something different.

Puh-leese, can we stop attributing magical powers to those on the spectrum?

There is, in fact, changed evidence: the people being tested have been told explicitly that John put the marbles in the blue box while Mary was out of the room. The argument, the “theory of mind,” is that neurotypical people are aware that Mary doesn’t know John moved them, even though we as outside observers do, so NT people answer that Mary still expects them to be where she left them, in the red box. The theory goes on to state that the neuro-divergent see things only from their own perspective: THEY know that John put them in the blue box, so Mary’s lack of knowledge doesn’t occur to them.

There are criticisms of this test, but “attributing magical powers” isn’t a valid one.

Absolutely true.


I got what China_Guy meant.

Yes, that’s exactly it. All kids fail the test up until a certain age. Autistic kids generally take longer to develop this understanding, so often won’t pass the test until they are older. It’s a pretty basic test though, and someone who passes can still have all kinds of problems understanding other people and their motivations. Partly because of difficulty seeing or interpreting signals, and partly because imagining how you’d feel or act in someone else’s place is not very useful when you are very different from the norm.

Personally, I very much dislike the terminology “on the spectrum”, for two reasons. First, it’s not actually clear that it is a spectrum. There are some indications that what we call “autism” and “autism spectrum disorders” are not just different levels of one condition, but some number (just how many, nobody knows) of completely unrelated conditions. And even if it is different variants of one condition, it almost certainly doesn’t vary just one-dimensionally, like a spectrum.

Second, if there is an autism spectrum, then everyone is on it. Just like radio, infrared, visible, ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays are all the same spectrum, so too would all people be on the same spectrum.

I realize that that’s largely in accord with the point you were getting at, but the terminology you used actually works against that point.

Thanks for saying that. I thought terms like “Kanner’s autism,” “Early Infantile Autism,” and “Asperger’s syndrome” were very useful.

And yes, everyone is on the spectrum. Some people may be far enough to the right that they are not autistic, but still may have social skills as their “C” subject. That where I am, frankly: right in between the middle and the far right.

I have Asperger’s Syndrome.
It’s obvious (and logical) to me that Mary will expect to see the marbles in the red box.
My difficulties lie in social interactions.

As others have said, autism varies wildly.
Just in my country town, I know one sufferer who literally cannot even speak to people and another who struggles to make friends, but does reasonably well at school.

Edited: I may be too autistic to formulate the response I want here.

It is a cool infographic. But unless you’re looking closely you might fail to notice that there were only 20 autistic children studied. That’s a remarkably low sample size.
The first version of the test was published 35 years ago. Has it been replicated?

I heard this a while ago, and loved it.

I’ve had a number of autistic students* and worked with some wonderful social workers who helped me understand them. AND, saw so many of those traits in myself (and my family and friends) as well.

I’ve taken to thinking “We’re all on the spectrum” in other situations as well. OCD? Road rage? Depression? We’re all subject to it to some degree… makes me realize that as I work at understanding others, I’m trying to understand myself as well.

*Oh, one told me a variation on the two boxes. He said if someone told him to go in the kitchen and “bring the bottle opener, it’s in the box on the counter.” he’d do that. BUT if the box was empty with a bottle opener next to it, he might go back and say “Sorry, it wasn’t in the box.”

Because they didn’t want the opener that was on the counter, they asked for the one in the box.

He was learning to bring the opener anyhow, just in case the person wanted this other bottle opener…

I agree. My son’s been tagged as “on the spectrum”, although apparently very much at the high-functioning end, in that he’s absurdly and relentlessly social, even if he isn’t that good at it, and he’s academically gifted.

But he just flat out doesn’t understand some things- one thing is seeing things from others’ perspectives, or understanding how others might feel in situations, be they immediate, future or past. And he gets WOUND UP… things will wind him up sometimes in ways that I can’t predict or fathom really.

Interestingly, I do think there’s some merit to the idea that everyone’s on the spectrum. I mean I’ve had trouble my whole life with social cues and empathy and stuff like that, although never to the point where I was even really considered "weird’- I was mostly just an inadvertent asshole and less successful with the opposite sex than I could have been. But I always had close friends, played well in groups, etc… I wasn’t the weird kid- there were other unfortunates who were tagged with that label.

Isn’t that true of any way of grouping people?

What I mean, though, by saying that “everyone is on the spectrum” is not that everyone has some autistic symptoms. What I mean is that even a hypothetical person with no symptoms of autism at all would still represent a point on the spectrum (at one extreme end of the spectrum).