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J Abnorm Psychol. 2012 May;121(2):544-51. doi: 10.1037/a0027670. Epub 2012 Mar 19.

Lightening the load: perceptual load impairs visual detection in typical adults but not in autism.

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  • 1Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, London.


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) research portrays a mixed picture of attentional abilities with demonstrations of enhancements (e.g., superior visual search) and deficits (e.g., higher distractibility). Here we test a potential resolution derived from the Load Theory of Attention (e.g., Lavie, 2005). In Load Theory, distractor processing depends on the perceptual load of the task and as such can only be eliminated under high load that engages full capacity. We hypothesize that ASD involves enhanced perceptual capacity, leading to the superior performance and increased distractor processing previously reported. Using a signal-detection paradigm, we test this directly and demonstrate that, under higher levels of load, perceptual sensitivity was reduced in typical adults but not in adults with ASD. These findings confirm our hypothesis and offer a promising solution to the previous discrepancies by suggesting that increased distractor processing in ASD results not from a filtering deficit but from enhanced perceptual capacity.

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