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Autism Res. 2016 Aug;9(8):866-78. doi: 10.1002/aur.1579. Epub 2015 Nov 27.

The developmental trajectory of contrast sensitivity in autism spectrum disorder.

Author information

Perceptual Neuroscience Laboratory for Autism and Development.
Integrated Program in Neuroscience, McGill University.
Centre d'excellence en Troubles Envahissants du Développement de l'Université de Montréal (CETEDUM), Hôpital Rivière-des-Prairies.
Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology, School/Applied Child Psychology, McGill University.


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by a detail-driven visual processing strategy, evidence for which has been based largely on cross-sectional studies in small participant groups of limited age ranges. It is therefore unknown when sensitivity to detailed information emerges and develops in ASD. Contrast sensitivity to sinusoidal gratings of different spatial frequencies (0.5, 1, 2, 4, and 8 cycles per degree (cpd)) was measured for 34 participants with ASD and 55 typically developing participants (aged 6-16 years). Cross-sectional, developmental trajectories were constructed to examine within and between group differences across the range of spatial frequencies tested. Developmental trajectories indicated that sensitivity across low (i.e., 0.5 and 1 cpd) and mid (2 and 4 cpd) spatial frequencies varied by chronological age within each group, with mid frequencies developing at a more significant rate than low frequencies. There was no overall difference between groups in terms of the relationship of sensitivity and age across spatial frequencies, yet the ASD group had an overall lower level of sensitivity. Closer examination revealed that the youngest participants with ASD had a reduced sensitivity for mid frequencies. Moreover, the ASD group showed a statistically significant developmental relationship at 8 cpd, which suggests that a trend for increased sensitivity to early detailed information may manifest beyond the ages tested. These findings demonstrate a differential development of contrast sensitivity for spatial frequencies in ASD and underscore the need to better identify what drives such differences in the "building blocks" of visual perception. Autism Res 2016, 9: 866-878.


autism spectrum disorder; contrast sensitivity; development; low-level perception; spatial frequency

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