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Neuropsychologia. 2005;43(7):1044-53. Epub 2004 Dec 8.

Abnormal global processing along the dorsal visual pathway in autism: a possible mechanism for weak visuospatial coherence?

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1
School of Psychology, University of Western Autralia, Perth, WA, Australia. liz.pellicano@psych.ox.ac.uk

Abstract

Frith and Happe (Frith, U., & Happe, F. (1994). Autism: Beyond theory of mind. Cognition, 50, 115-132) argue that individuals with autism exhibit 'weak central coherence': an inability to integrate elements of information into coherent wholes. Some authors have speculated that a high-level impairment might be present in the dorsal visual pathway in autism, and furthermore, that this might account for weak central coherence, at least at the visuospatial level. We assessed the integrity of the dorsal visual pathway in children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and in typically developing children, using two visual tasks, one examining functioning at higher levels of the dorsal cortical stream (Global Dot Motion (GDM)), and the other assessing lower-level dorsal stream functioning (Flicker Contrast Sensitivity (FCS)). Central coherence was tested using the Children's Embedded Figures Test (CEFT). Relative to the typically developing children, the children with ASD had shorter CEFT latencies and higher GDM thresholds but equivalent FCS thresholds. Additionally, CEFT latencies were inversely related to GDM thresholds in the ASD group. These outcomes indicate that the elevated global motion thresholds in autism are the result of high-level impairments in dorsal cortical regions. Weak visuospatial coherence in autism may be in the form of abnormal cooperative mechanisms in extra-striate cortical areas, which might contribute to differential performance when processing stimuli as Gestalts, including both dynamic (i.e., global motion perception) and static (i.e., disembedding performance) stimuli.

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