Brain Cogn 2006 Jun 23;61(1):40-53. Epub 2006 Feb 23.
Yale Child Study Center, New Haven, CT, USA.
The weak central coherence (WCC) account of autism characterizes the learning style of individuals with this condition as favoring localized and fragmented (to the detriment of global and integrative) processing of information. This pattern of learning is thought to lead to deficits in aspects of perception (e.g., face processing), cognition, and communication (e.g., focus on disjointed details rather than "gist" or context), ultimately leading to social impairments. This study was carried out to examine whether WCC applies to social and to non-social aspects of learning alike, or, alternatively, some areas of learning (e.g., physical reasoning) are spared in autism. classic social animation as quantified in the Social Attribution Task (SAT) () and a novel animation involving physical reasoning (the Physical Attribution Task; PAT) were used to test the domain specificity of the WCC hypothesis. A pilot study involving a reference group of typically developing young adults and a group of individuals with higher-functioning autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) revealed gender differences in the reference group in regards to performance on the PAT (males outperformed females). In a follow-up case-control comparison involving only males where the ASD group was matched on age and IQ to a typically developing (TD) group of children, adolescents, and adults, the ASD group showed lower SAT scores and comparable PAT scores relative to the TD group. The interaction of diagnostic group by task was highly significant, with little overlap between the groups in the distributions of SAT minus PAT scores. These results indicated preserved integrative skills in the area of physical attribution in the ASD group, thus failing to support the WCC account as a domain-independent (or more general) model of learning in autism, while highlighting the centrality of the social deficits in the characterization of learning style in the autism spectrum disorders.