International Meeting for Autism Research: Global and Local Contextual Learning In Persons with ASD

Global and Local Contextual Learning In Persons with ASD

Saturday, May 14, 2011
Elizabeth Ballroom E-F and Lirenta Foyer Level 2 (Manchester Grand Hyatt)
11:00 AM
P. S. Powell, M. E. Crisler, B. G. Travers, J. L. Mussey, M. R. Klinger and L. G. Klinger, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL

Individuals with ASD often have difficulty with learning to use the environment to guide attention.  For example, learning to drive requires learning which environmental cues we should attend to (e.g., road signs), which enhances our ability to navigate the road.  Contextual cueing tasks have found conflicting results in persons with ASD.  Some studies have found intact contextual learning using contextual cues with both local and global elements (Barnes et al., 2008; Brown et al., 2010; Kourkoulou, Findlay, & Leekam, in press).  However, a study using only local cues found impaired contextual learning (Klinger, Klinger, Travers, & Mussey, 2007). We hypothesized that these conflicting findings may reflect underlying methodological differences between the types of cues used.


The present study adapted the Klinger et al. contextual cueing paradigm by adding global elements to the contextual cues. We predicted that this change may facilitate persons with ASD learning of the relationship between the context and the target.


Twelve high-functioning adolescents and young adults with ASD and 16 individuals with typical development completed a visual search task in which contextual information predicted the location of a target character (data collection is ongoing).  This paradigm differed from Klinger et al. (2007) by including an overall global arrangement cue (i.e., overall shape of the array) in addition to local contextual cues(i.e., identity of individual characters in specific locations predicts the target location).  Participants located the target as quickly and accurately as possible while hidden amongst an array of 19 other characters.  Participants had limited awareness that the arrangement of characters predicted the location of the target.  In the first eight blocks of 48 trials the context predicted the location of the target.  This was followed by an unpredictable ninth block, and then a final predictable 10th block.


For this task, learning was defined as the difference in reaction time to the final blocks of predictable trials compared to the block of unpredictable trials. As predicted, when local and global contexts were provided, participants with typical development, (+50ms), t(15) = 4.74, p < .001, Cohen’s d = 1.19, and participants with ASD (+88ms), t(11) = 2.52, p = .03, Cohen’s d = .73, showed significant contextual learning.  There was not a significant group difference, t(26) = .13, p = .90, Cohen’s d = .07. 


These results suggest that when both local and global contextual information predicts target location, individuals with ASD learn to use this information similarly to individuals with typical development.  However, when only local cues are provided, individuals with ASD may have difficulty with implicit contextual learning (Klinger et al., 2007). This study helps explain the inconsistencies in the results of past contextual learning research and has implications for future research on the attentional mechanisms of contextual cueing in individuals with ASD.

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