Background: Impaired face processing is a widely documented deficit in autism. Although the origin of this deficit is unclear, several groups have suggested that a lack of perceptual expertise is contributory. We investigated whether individuals with autism develop expertise in visuoperceptual processing of faces and whether any deficiency in such processing is specific to faces, or extends to other objects, too.
Method: Participants performed perceptual discrimination tasks, including a face inversion task and a classification-level task, which requires especially fine-grained discriminations, on three classes of stimuli: socially-laden faces, perceptually homogenous novel objects, greebles, and perceptually heterogeneous common objects.
Results: We found that children with autism develop typical levels of expertise for recognition of common objects. However, they evince poorer recognition for perceptually homogenous objects, including faces and, most especially, greebles.
Conclusions: Documenting the atypical recognition abilities for greebles in children with autism has provided an important insight into the potential origin of the relatively poor face recognition skills. Our findings suggest that, throughout development, individuals with autism have a generalized deficit in visuoperceptual processing that may interfere with their ability to undertake configural processing, and that this, in turn, adversely impacts their recognition of within-class perceptually homogenous objects.