Object-based attention benefits reveal selective abnormalities of visual integration in autism

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Abstract

A pervasive integration deficit could provide a powerful and elegant account of cognitive processing in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). However, in the case of visual Gestalt grouping, typically assessed by tasks that require participants explicitly to introspect on their own grouping perception, clear evidence for such a deficit remains elusive. To resolve this issue, we adopt an index of Gestalt grouping from the object-based attention literature that does not require participants to assess their own grouping perception. Children with ASD and mental- and chronological-age matched typically developing children (TD) performed speeded orientation discriminations of two diagonal lines. The lines were superimposed on circles that were either grouped together or segmented on the basis of color, proximity or these two dimensions in competition. The magnitude of performance benefits evident for grouped circles, relative to ungrouped circles, provided an index of grouping under various conditions. Children with ASD showed comparable grouping by proximity to the TD group, but reduced grouping by similarity. ASD seems characterized by a selective bias away from grouping by similarity combined with typical levels of grouping by proximity, rather than by a pervasive integration deficit.

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