Prototypical category learning in high-functioning autism

Authors

  • Tony Vladusich,

    1. Department of Cognitive and Neural Systems, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts
    2. Center for Adaptive Systems, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts
    3. Center of Excellence for Learning in Education, Science and Technology, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts
    Current affiliation:
    1. Volen Center for Complex Systems, Brandeis University, 415 South Street, Waltham, MA 02454
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  • Olufemi Olu-Lafe,

    1. Department of Psychology, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts
    2. Center of Excellence for Learning in Education, Science and Technology, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts
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  • Dae-Shik Kim,

    1. Biomedical Imaging Center, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts
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  • Helen Tager-Flusberg,

    1. Department of Psychology, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts
    2. Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, Massachusetts
    3. Center of Excellence for Learning in Education, Science and Technology, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts
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  • Stephen Grossberg

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Cognitive and Neural Systems, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts
    2. Center for Adaptive Systems, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts
    3. Center of Excellence for Learning in Education, Science and Technology, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts
    • Department of Cognitive and Neural Systems, Boston University, 677 Beacon Street, Boston, MA 02215
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Abstract

An ongoing debate in developmental cognitive neuroscience is whether individuals with autism are able to learn prototypical category representations from multiple exemplars. Prototype learning and memory were examined in a group of high-functioning autistic boys and young men, using a classic paradigm in which participants learned to classify novel dot patterns into one of two categories. Participants were trained on distorted versions of category prototypes until they reached a criterion level of performance. During transfer testing, participants were shown the training items together with three novel stimulus sets manifesting variable levels of physical distortion (low, medium, or high distortion) relative to the unseen prototypes. Two experiments were conducted, differing only in the manner in which the physical distortions were defined. In the first experiment, a subset of autistic individuals learned categories more slowly than controls, accompanied by an overall diminution in transfer-testing performance. The autism group did, however, manifest a typical pattern of performance across the testing conditions, relative to controls. In the second experiment, group means did not differ statistically in either the training or testing phases. Taken together, these data indicate that high-functioning autistic individuals do not manifest gross deficits in prototypical category learning. A theoretical discussion is given in terms of how perceptual grouping may interact with category learning.

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