Conventional wisdom suggests that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) grants extraordinary gifts in tandem with the impairments it causes. It is typically believed that people with ASD are, for example, excellent at deciphering visual details. A new study finds that children with ASD actually have comparable visual processing abilities to typically developing children.
The researchers conducted a series of laboratory tests to evaluate the visual processing abilities of 59 children with ASD and 58 typically developing children, all aged 8 to 18. The tests assessed the children’s abilities in local processing (identifying details) and global processing (deriving a complete picture from disparate pieces). To test local processing, the children completed tasks like identifying a red X from among green Xs and red Cs. To test global processing, the children were asked to identify an object on a screen as the object’s outline gradually appeared. The researchers also asked children to copy a complex drawing to determine whether they preferred local or global processing.
If conventional wisdom were correct, the researchers would expect to see the children with ASD do better in local processing and worse on global processing than typically developing children. In fact, there was no significant difference between the children in the ASD group and the typically developing group on the local processing test—both groups operated at similar speeds.
In global processing, children with ASD under age 12 did worse compared to similarly-aged typically developing children. Adolescents with ASD did about as well as their typically developing peers in global processing. Children with ASD were as quick as the recognizing distinctive, angular shapes as typically developing children. When the shapes were smooth or blobby, they were slower than the typically developing group.
The researchers suggest that perhaps visual processing irregularities in autism are subtler than previously thought or are not apparent in laboratory testing. It is also possible that these irregularities do not emerge until later in life.
The findings bring researchers one step closer to understanding the unique sensory processing abilities of people with ASD.
This research is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
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