Deficits in adults with autism spectrum disorders when processing multiple objects in dynamic scenes

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Abstract

People with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) process visual information in a manner that is distinct from typically developing individuals. They may be less sensitive to people's goals and, more generally, focus on visual details instead of the entire scene. To examine these differences, people with and without ASD were asked to detect changes in dynamic scenes with multiple elements. Participants viewed a brief video of a person or an inanimate object (the “figure”) moving from one object to another; after a delay, they reported whether a second video was the same or different. Possible changes included the figure, the object the figure was moving from, or the object the figure was moving toward (the “goal”). We hypothesized that individuals with ASD would be less sensitive to changes in scenes with people, particularly elements that might be the person's goal. Alternately, people with ASD might attend to fewer elements regardless of whether the scene included a person. Our results indicate that, like controls, people with ASD noticed a change in the “goal” object at the end of a person's movement more often than the object at the start. However, the group with ASD did not undergo the developmental improvement that was evident typically when detecting changes in both the start and end objects. This atypical development led to deficits in adults with ASD that were not specific to scenes with people or to “goals.” Improvements in visual processing that underlie mature representation of scenes may not occur in ASD, suggesting that late developing brain processes are affected. Autism Res 2011, 4: 132–142. © 2011, International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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