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Keywords:

  • perceptual grouping;
  • global/local processing;
  • vision;
  • global advantage

Abstract

Individuals with autism exhibit hypersensitivity to local elements of the input, which may interfere with the ability to group visual elements perceptually. We investigated the development of perceptual grouping abilities in high-functioning individuals with autism (HFA) across a wide age range (8–30 years) using a classic compound letter global/local (GL) task and a more fine-grained microgenetic prime paradigm (MPP), including both few- and many-element hierarchical displays. In the GL task, contrary to the typically developing (TD) controls, HFA participants did not develop an increasing sensitivity to the global information with age. In the MPP, like the TD controls, individuals with autism at all three age groups evinced a bias to individuate the few-element displays. However, contrary to the TD controls, the HFA group failed to show age-related improvements in the ability to encode the global shape of the many-element displays. In fact, across the age range, the HFA group was consistently faster than the TD controls at perceiving the local elements in these displays. These results indicate that in autism the full process of garnering shape information from perceptual grouping, which is essential for the ability to do fast and efficient object recognition and identification, never matures, and this is especially evident in adolescence when this ability begins to improve in TD individuals. The atypical development of these perceptual organizational abilities may disrupt processing of visually presented objects, which may, in turn, fundamentally impede the development of major aspects of the social and emotional behaviors in individuals with autism.