International Meeting for Autism Research: Weak Central Coherence In Autism Over the Preschool Years

Weak Central Coherence In Autism Over the Preschool Years

Saturday, May 14, 2011
Elizabeth Ballroom E-F and Lirenta Foyer Level 2 (Manchester Grand Hyatt)
9:00 AM
K. K. Powell, E. S. Kuschner and L. G. Anthony, Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders, Division of Neuropsycholology, Children's National Medical Center, Rockville, MD

Weak Central Coherence (WCC) theory describes the unique, detailed-focused cognitive processing style common in individuals with autism as the limited capacity or ability to understand context or to ‘see the big picture.’ Research on WCC support impairment in gestalt processing with strength in local processing among older preschool-aged children, school-aged children, adolescents and adults with autism as compared to a variety of controls.  As part of an on-going project, this study aimed to examine the emergence of cognitive subtypes in younger preschoolers with ASD.  This is an important step in further uncovering the role of a WCC cognitive bias in young children with autism.


To examine the relative strengths and weaknesses within each child’s cognitive profile across time using a nonverbal measure of WCC to examine if a detailed-focused processing bias is present at both time points (mean age=39.5 months and mean age=60.5 months). 


Participants consisted of a clinically referred sample of 14 children (n= 12 [85.7%] male) with an ASD diagnosis based on the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule and clinical impression (Autism n= 7; PDD-NOS n= 7).  All data were collected during a comprehensive clinical diagnostic and psychoeducational evaluation at a special education preschool program.  Central coherence was estimated using patterns of cognitive performance on the Leiter International Performance Scale–Revised (Leiter-R) Brief IQ Screener (Figure Ground (FG), Form Completion (FC), Repeated Patterns (RP), and Sequential Order (SO)) at two time points (mean age=39.5 months and mean age=60.5 months).  A WCC profile was characterized by a relative strength in the subtests that depend on detail-focused perceptual processes (i.e., FG and FC) compared to relative weaknesses in the subtests that require abstract reasoning or concept formulation (i.e., RP and SO). 


Paired samples t-tests at Time 1 indicate no differences (ps> .14) among the Brief IQ subtests, providing evidence against a WCC profile at this earlier age. Paired samples t-tests at Time 2 indicate differences between FG-SO and FC-SO (ps< .01); however differences between FG-RP and FC-RP were not found (ps>.06), providing partial support for a WCC profile with a strength in detail-focused tasks (i.e., FG and FC) and a relative weakness in abstract processing tasks (i.e., SO).  


At Time 1, we find that young preschoolers with autism are not showing specific strengths and weaknesses within their cognitive profile, suggesting that an enhanced local processing style is not present.  At Time 2, children with autism are showing strength on FG and FC when compared to SO.  However, this same pattern is not evident when FG and FC were compared to RP.  Findings suggest that an uneven pattern of strengths and weaknesses in cognition found in previous research on individuals with autism, namely strengths in nonverbal perceptual versus nonverbal conceptual skills, which are proxies for WCC, are evident for older preschoolers, but not younger preschoolers.  We conclude that the development of a drive for local processing may occur over the preschool years, which would subsequently have implications for intervention.

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