Children with high functioning autism and Aspergers disorder outperform typically developing peers on ‘embedded figure’ tests. These tests usually require the test taker to locate a previously seen figure within a more complex figure. For example, a child may be shown a triangle and then shown a picture of a house and requested to find the triangle hidden within the picture of the house. Thus, the child has to ‘break’ the complex figure (the house) into parts or smaller components in order to identify the triangle. Some have suggested that this above average performance by individuals with ASD is due to a deficit in the processing of complex whole figures. That is, typically developing children tend to see the house as ‘a whole’, slowing the identification of small figures within the picture. On the other hand, kids with ASDs may see the house as ‘parts’, facilitating the identification of embedded figures.

One way to test this hypothesis would be to also assess for ‘global processing’ skills. If individuals with ASD show superior performance on tasks requiring to break whole pictures in to parts, but show impaired performance on tasks requiring to process whole complex pictures, then the hypothesis would be supported (albeit not confirmed). In an article to be published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, researcher Emma Grinter and her colleagues at the University of Western Australia attempted to examine this issue. Specifically, the authors were interested in examining whether typically developing individuals who have autistic traits show the same pattern of performance as those with diagnoses of autism. Thus, the authors examined 595 undergraduate students who completed a measure of autism-like symptoms. Based on the responses to this measure, 26 students were identified as having very high autism symptoms and 29 with very low levels of symptoms. The students then completed a series of visual perceptual tests.

The results:

1. On a test requiring participants to identify embedded figures within a complex larger picture, those with high autism symptoms were significantly faster and committed fewer errors than those with low autism symptoms. These results were independent of the gender of the participants, even though males outperformed females on these tasks.

2. On two tasks of global processing, the participants with high autism symptoms had significantly “higher thresholds”. Higher thresholds on these tasks indicate difficulty in the processing and identification of whole motion and static patterns. Thus, this suggests that these tasks were easier for those with low levels of autism symptoms than for the group with high levels of symptoms.

The results of this study support the possibility that the superior performance on tasks requiring the identification of embedded figures in autism, may be at least partly due to difficulties in whole picture processing. Furthermore, the study suggests that this pattern is noticeable even among typically developing individuals who show sub-clinical symptoms of autism, suggesting that such neurocognitive pattern may be closely related to the underlying cognitive processing in the general autism syndrome.
Grinter, E., Maybery, M., Beek, P., Pellicano, E., Badcock, J., & Badcock, D. (2009). Global Visual Processing and Self-Rated Autistic-like Traits Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders DOI: 10.1007/s10803-009-0740-5ResearchBlogging.org

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