A review of: Emma J. Grinter, Pia L. Beek, Murray T. Maybery, David R. Badcock (2008). Brief Report: Visuospatial Analysis and Self-Rated Autistic-Like Traits Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders DOI: 10.1007/s10803-008-0658-3
Although most psychiatric, developmental, and neurological disorders are usually conceptualized as discrete categories (e.g., you either have autism or you don’t), these conditions can also be conceptualized as occurring in a continuum. For example, we all feel sad sometimes. Such sadness, and related symptoms, can range from very mild to incapacitating. Somewhere in this continuum there is a theoretical line that separates sadness from clinical depression.
In autism, a number of researchers have proposed the concept of the Broader Autism Phenotype. This concept refers to mild traits of autism found in the general typically developing population, and especially among relatives of people with Autism. You can read a couple of summaries of research on the Broader Autism Phenotype here and here.
In this study, the authors were interested in examining whether typically developing young adults (college students) who have high levels autism-like traits also have relative strengths on tasks of visospatial skills – a finding that is common among people with some autism spectrum disorders. The authors presented two studies. In the first study they examined 548 college students in Australia. The students completed the Autism-spectrum Quotient (AQ), which is a measure of autistic traits. A subsample of these students then completed two visuospatial tasks: the block design of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scales and the Embedded Figures Test. The authors reported that students with high AQ scores outperformed those with low AQ scores in both the block design task and the Embedded Figures Test. In a second study, the authors examined the effects of general IQ on these results. They showed that IQ partially explained the group differences in the Embedded Figures Test, but IQ did not explain the differences in the block design task. That is, these two groups continued to show differences in performance on the block design task even when considering differences in IQ between the groups.
The authors explained their results in the context of the Weak Central Coherence Theory. This theory suggests that some individuals (e.g., people with autism) have a “lack of distraction by holistic configurations and relative facilitation in dealing with piecemeal components.” This in turn would facilitate visuospatial tasks that require significant attention to detail.
There is one methodological issue I wish you briefly note. The authors initially examined 548 students. Then only those who scores significantly low and high in the AQ scales were invited to complete the visuospatial tasks. These groups included only 20 students in the low AQ group and 19 students in the high AQ group. This represents the extreme 4% of the sample. I wish that the entire sample of 548 students had completed all tasks and that the data were presented without categorizing the sample as low and high AQ. Instead the data could have been presented in a continuum to show whether high scores in the AQ were also associated (correlated) with high scores on the block design task and the Embedded Figures Test. This would provide a much stronger argument for the fluidity of autism-like traits in the general population and its association with other cognitive skills observed in autism.
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