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Cognitive mechanisms, specificity and neural underpinnings of visuospatial peaks in autism

M.-J. Caron, L. Mottron, C. Berthiaume, M. Dawson
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/awl072 1789-1802 First published online: 5 April 2006

Summary

In order to explain the cognitive and cerebral mechanisms responsible for the visuospatial peak in autism, and to document its specificity to this condition, a group of eight high-functioning individuals with autism and a visuospatial peak (HFA-P) performed a modified block-design task (BDT; subtest from Wechsler scales) at various levels of perceptual cohesiveness, as well as tasks tapping visuomotor speed, global perception, visual memory, visual search and speed of visual encoding. Their performance was compared with that of 8 autistics without a visuospatial peak (HFA-NP), 10 typically developing individuals (TD) and 8 gifted comparison participants with a visuospatial peak (TD-P). Both HFA-P and HFA-NP groups presented with diminished detrimental influence of increasing perceptual coherence compared with their BDT-matched comparison groups. Neither autistic group displayed a deficit in construction of global representations. The HFA-P group showed no differences in performance level or profile in comparison with the gifted BDT-matched [i.e. higher full-scale IQ (FSIQ)] group, apart from locally oriented perception. Diminished detrimental influence of perceptual coherence on BDT performance is both sensitive and specific to autism, and superior low-level processing interacts with locally oriented bias to produce outstanding BDT performance in a subgroup of autistic individuals. Locally oriented processing, enhanced performance in multiple tasks relying on detection of simple visual material and enhanced discrimination of first-order gratings converge towards an enhanced functioning and role of the primary visual cortex (V1) in autism. In contrast, superior or typical performance of autistics in tasks requiring global processing is inconsistent with the global-deficit-driven Weak Central Coherence hypothesis and its neurobiological magnocellular deficit counterpart.

  • autism
  • visuospatial peak
  • occipital cortex
  • parvocellular pathway
  • magnocellular pathway

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