Context processing in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder: How complex could it be?

Dekel Ben-Yosef, David Anaki, Ofer Golan
Autism Research: Official Journal of the International Society for Autism Research 2017, 10 (3): 520-530
The ability of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to process context has long been debated: According to the Weak Central Coherence theory, ASD is characterized by poor global processing, and consequently-poor context processing. In contrast, the Social Cognition theory argues individuals with ASD will present difficulties only in social context processing. The complexity theory of autism suggests context processing in ASD will depend on task complexity. The current study examined this controversy through two priming tasks, one presenting human stimuli (facial expressions) and the other presenting non-human stimuli (animal faces). Both tasks presented visual targets, preceded by congruent, incongruent, or neutral auditory primes. Local and global processing were examined by presenting the visual targets in three spatial frequency conditions: High frequency, low frequency, and broadband. Tasks were administered to 16 adolescents with high functioning ASD and 16 matched typically developing adolescents. Reaction time and accuracy were measured for each task in each condition. Results indicated that individuals with ASD processed context for both human and non-human stimuli, except in one condition, in which human stimuli had to be processed globally (i.e., target presented in low frequency). The task demands presented in this condition, and the performance deficit shown in the ASD group as a result, could be understood in terms of cognitive overload. These findings provide support for the complexity theory of autism and extend it. Our results also demonstrate how associative priming could support intact context processing of human and non-human stimuli in individuals with ASD. Autism Res 2017, 10: 520-530. © 2016 International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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