Electrophysiological measures of low-level vision reveal spatial processing deficits and hemispheric asymmetry in autism spectrum disorder

J Vis. 2014 Sep 5;14(11):3. doi: 10.1167/14.11.3.


There is accumulating evidence from electrophysiological studies that low-level visual processing is atypical in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Abnormalities in early stages of sensory processing are of interest because they could lead to downstream functional deficits in social or cognitive domains. Using steady-state visual evoked potentials (SSVEPs), we studied how well spatial information is transmitted over a wide range of spatial frequencies (2-30 cycles/deg), including those at the limit of visibility (visual acuity). SSVEPs were recorded over 128 channels in 16 ASD participants between 5 and 17 years old and 17 age-matched, neurotypical (NT) participants. We observed a selective reduction of the amplitude of the SSVEP second harmonic pattern reversal response between 5 and 17 cycles/deg. Responses measured at the fourth harmonic were normal at all spatial frequencies tested, as were responses at the lowest and highest spatial frequencies at the second harmonic. The reduction of second harmonic responses occurred preferentially over right occipital electrodes. Because response abnormalities are restricted to a specific response harmonic and to specific ranges of spatial frequency, we can rule out nonspecific differences between the ASD participants and the NT controls. This particular pattern of loss, combined with the observed exaggeration of the loss over the right hemisphere, suggests that a highly specific neural substrate early in the visual pathway is compromised in ASD.

Keywords: autism; spatial frequency; vision; visual evoked potential; visual perception.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Child
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive / physiopathology*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Evoked Potentials, Visual / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Perceptual Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Vision, Low / physiopathology*
  • Visual Acuity
  • Visual Pathways / physiopathology*