The broader cognitive phenotype of autism in parents: how specific is the tendency for local processing and executive dysfunction?


Sven Bölte, Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität, Klinik für Psychiatrie und Psychotherapie, des Kindes- und Jugendalters, Deutschordenstr. 50, D-60528 Frankfurt/M., Germany; Tel:++49.69.6301.5408; Fax:++49.69.6301.5843; Email:


Background:  The objective of this study was to investigate the tendency for local processing style (‘weak central coherence’) and executive dysfunction in parents of subjects with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) compared with parents of individuals with early onset schizophrenia (EOS) and mental retardation (MR).

Method:  Sixty-two parents of subjects with ASD, 36 parents of subjects with EOS and 30 parents of subjects with MR were examined. Data on two scales indicative of local visual processing (Embedded Figures Test, Block Design) and on three executive function tests (Wisconsin Card Sorting Test, Tower of Hanoi, Trailmaking Test) were collected for all participants.

Results:  Parents of subjects with ASD performed significantly faster on the Embedded Figures Test compared with both control samples. No other substantial group differences were observed.

Conclusions:  The findings indicate that an increased tendency for local processing in terms of visual disembedding could be a relatively specific core feature of the broader cognitive phenotype of autism in parents.