Locally oriented perception with intact global processing among adolescents with high-functioning autism: evidence from multiple paradigms

J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2003 Sep;44(6):904-13. doi: 10.1111/1469-7610.00174.


Background: According to predictions from the Weak Central Coherence (WCC) theory for perceptual processing, persons with autism should display a tendency to focus on minute details rather than on a more general picture (Frith & Happé, 1994). However, the evidence for this theory is not consistent with findings of an enhanced detection of local targets (Plaisted, O'Riordan, & Baron-Cohen, 1998b; Plaisted, Swettenham, & Rees, 1999), but a typical global bias (Mottron, Burack, Stauder, & Robaey, 1999; Ozonoff, Strayer, McMahon, & Filloux, 1994).

Method: Adolescents with high-functioning autism and CA- (approximately 15 years) and IQ- (approximately 105-110) matched typically developing adolescents were administered a series of global-local visual tasks, including a traditional task of hierarchical processing, three tasks of configural processing, and a disembedding task that involved rapid perceptual processing.

Results: No group differences were found on either the traditional task of hierarchical processing or on tasks of configural processing. However, group differences were found on the disembedding task as the search for embedded, in relation to isolated stimuli, was slower for the typically developing adolescents but similar for the participants with autism.

Conclusions: These findings are consistent with other reports of superior performance in detecting embedded figures (Jolliffe & Baron-Cohen, 1997; Shah & Frith, 1983), but typical performance in global and configural processing (Mottron, Burack et al., 1999; Ozonoff et al., 1994) among persons with high-functioning autism. Thus, the notions of local bias and global impairment that are part of WCC may need to be reexamined.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attention
  • Autistic Disorder / psychology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Child
  • Cognition*
  • Cues*
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Perceptual Masking / physiology