Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology

, Volume 46, Issue 6, pp 1359–1371 | Cite as

Autism: Hard to Switch from Details to the Whole

  • María Felipa Soriano
  • Antonio J. Ibáñez-Molina
  • Natalia Paredes
  • Pedro Macizo


It has long been proposed that individuals with autism exhibit a superior processing of details at the expense of an impaired global processing. This theory has received some empirical support, but results are mixed. In this research we have studied local and global processing in ASD and Typically Developing children, with an adaptation of the Navon task, designed to measure congruency effects between local and global stimuli and switching cost between local and global tasks. ASD children showed preserved global processing; however, compared to Typically Developing children, they exhibited more facilitation from congruent local stimuli when they performed the global task. In addition, children with ASD had more switching cost than Typically Developing children only when they switched from the local to the global task, reflecting a specific difficulty to disengage from local stimuli. Together, results suggest that ASD is characterized by a tendency to process local details, they benefit from the processing of local stimuli at the expense of increasing cost to disengage from local stimuli when global processing is needed. Thus, this work demonstrates experimentally the advantages and disadvantages of the increased local processing in children with ASD.


Autism Local processing Global processing Task switching 



Autism Spectrum Disorder


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies were approved by the Ethical Committee on Human Research at the University of Granada (Spain) (Number issued by the Ethical Committee: 86/CEIH/2015), and in accordance with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


  1. American Psychiatric Association (Ed.). (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV-TR. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.Google Scholar
  2. Asperger, H. (1944). Die "Autistischen psychopathen" im kindesalter [“Autistic psychopathy” in childhood]. Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten, 117, 76–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baron-Cohen, S., & Swettenham, J. (1997). Theory of mind in autism: Its relationship to executive function and central coherence. In D. Cohen & F. Volkmar (Eds.), Handbook of autism and pervasive developmental disorders (2nd ed.). Hoboken: Wiley.Google Scholar
  4. Belmonte, M. K., Allen, G., Beckel-Mitchener, A., Boulanger, L. M., Carper, R. A., & Webb, S. J. (2004). Autism and abnormal development of brain connectivity. Journal of Neuroscience, 24, 9228–9231. Scholar
  5. Berument, S. K., Rutter, M., Lord, C., Pickles, A., & Bailey, A. (1999). Autism screening questionnaire: diagnostic validity. British Journal of Psychiatry, 175, 444–451. Scholar
  6. Booth, R., Charlton, R., Hughes, C., & Happé, F. (2003). Disentangling weak coherence and executive dysfunction: Planning drawing in autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B: Biological Sciences, 358, 387–392. Scholar
  7. Brock, J., Brown, C. C., Boucher, J., & Rippon, G. (2002). The temporal binding deficit hypothesis of autism. Development and Psychopathology, 14, 209–224. Scholar
  8. Brundson, V. E. A., & Happé, F. (2014). Exploring the 'fractionation' of autism at the cognitive level. Autism, 18, 17–30. Scholar
  9. Campana, F., Rebollo, I., Urai, A., Wyart, V., & Tallon-Baudry, C. (2016). Conscious vision proceeds from global to local content in goal-directed tasks and spontaneous vision. Journal of Neuroscience, 36, 5200–5213. Scholar
  10. Chamberlain, R., Van der Hallen, R., Huygelier, H., Van de Cruys, S., & Wagemans, J. (2017). Local-global processing bias is not a unitary individual difference in visual processing. Vision Research.
  11. Chen, Y. H., Rodgers, J., & McConachie, H. (2009). Restricted and repetitive behaviours, sensory processing and cognitive style in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39, 635–642. Scholar
  12. Fletcher-Watson, S., Leekam, S. R., & Findlay, J. M. (2013). Social interest in high-functioning adults with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 28, 222–229. Scholar
  13. Frith, U. (1989). Autism: Explaining the enigma. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  14. Grandin, T., & Johnson, C. (2006). Animals in translation: Using the mysteries of autism to decode animal behavior. New York: Harcourt.Google Scholar
  15. Guy, J., Mottron, L., Berthiaume, C., & Bertone, A. (2016). A developmental perspective of global and local visual perception in autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
  16. Happé, F., & Frith, U. (2006). The weak coherence account: Detail-focused cognitive style in autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36, 5–25. Scholar
  17. Happé, F., & Ronald, A. (2008). The “fractionable autism triad”: a review of evidence from behavioural, genetic, cognitive and neural research. Neuropsychological Review, 18, 287–304. Scholar
  18. Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact. The Nervous Child, 2, 217–250.Google Scholar
  19. Kaufman, A. S., & Kaufman, N. L. (2004). Kaufman brief intelligence test (2th ed.). Bloomington: Pearson, Inc..Google Scholar
  20. Kiesel, A., Steinhauser, M., Wendt, M., Falkenstein, M., Jost, K., Philipp, A. M., & Koch, I. (2010). Control and interference in task switching - a review. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 849–874. Scholar
  21. Kimchi, R. (2015). The perception of hierarchical structure. In J. Wagemans (Ed.), Oxford handbook of perceptual organization (pp. 129–149). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Koch, I., Gade, M., Schuch, S., & Philipp, A. M. (2010). The role of inhibition in task switching: a review. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17, 1–14. Scholar
  23. Koldewyn, K., Jiang, Y., Weigelt, S., & Kanwisher, N. (2013). Global/local processing in autism: not a disability, but a disinclination. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43, 2329–2340. Scholar
  24. Meuter, R. F. I., & Allport, A. (1999). Bilingual language switching in naming: Asymmetrical costs of language selection. Journal of Memory and Language, 40, 25–40. Scholar
  25. Milne, E., & Szczerbinski, M. (2009). Global and local perceptual style, field independence, and central coherence: An attempt at concept validation. Advances in Cognitive Psychology, 5, 1–26. Scholar
  26. Mottron, L., & Burack, J. (2001). Enhanced perceptual functioning in the development of persons with autism. In J. A. Burack, T. Charman, N. Yirmiya, & P. R. Zelazo (Eds.), The development of autism: Perspectives from theory and research (pp. 131–148). Hillsdale: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  27. Mottron, L., Dawson, M., Soulières, I., Hubert, B., & Burack, J. (2006). Enhanced perceptual functioning in autism: An update, and eight principles of autistic perception. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36, 27–43. Scholar
  28. Muth, A., Hönekopp, J., & Falter, C. M. (2014). Visuo-spatial performance in autism: A meta-analysis. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44, 3245–3263. Scholar
  29. Navon, D. (1977). Forest before trees: The precedence of global features in visual perception. Cognitive Psychology, 9, 353–383. Scholar
  30. Olu-Lafe, O., Liederman, J., & Tager-Flusberg, H. (2014). Is the ability to integrate parts into wholes affected in autism spectrum disorder? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44, 2652–2660. Scholar
  31. Ozonoff, S., Strayer, D. L., McMahon, W. M., & Filloux, F. (1994). Executive function abilities in autism and Tourette syndrome: An information processing approach. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines, 35, 1015–1032. Scholar
  32. Ozonoff, S., Coon, H., Dawson, G., Joseph, R. M., Klin, A., McMahon, W. M., et al. (2004). Performance on Cambridge neuropsychological test automated battery subtests sensitive to frontal lobe function in people with autistic disorder: evidence from the collaborative programs of excellence in autism network. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34, 139–150. Scholar
  33. Pellicano, E., Maybery, M., Durkin, K., & Maley, A. (2006). Multiple cognitive capabilities/deficits in children with an autism spectrum disorder: weak central coherence and its relationship to theory of mind and executive control. Development and Psychopathology, 18, 77–98. Scholar
  34. Plaisted, K., Swettenham, J., & Rees, L. (1999). Children with autism show local precedence in a divided attention task and global precedence in a selective attention task. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 40, 733–742. Scholar
  35. Ring, H. A., Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Williams, S. C. R., Brammer, M., Andrew, C., & Bullmore, E. T. (1999). Cerebral correlates of preserved cognitive skills in autism: A functional MRI study of embedded figures task performance. Brain, 122, 1305–1315. Scholar
  36. Rutter, M., Bailey, A., & Lord, C. (2013). Social Communication Questionnaire: SCQ (W-381). Retrieved from
  37. Schneider, W., Eschman, A., & Zuccolotto, A. (2002). E-Prime user’s guide (version 1.1). Pittsburg: Psychology Software Tools.Google Scholar
  38. Shalev, L. (2007). Do local bias and local-to-global interference reflect intact global processing in autism? Cognitive Neuropsychology, 24, 575–577. Scholar
  39. StatSoft, Inc. (2014). STATISTICA (data analysis software system), version 12.
  40. Teunisse, J. P., Cools, A. R., van Spaendonck, K. P. M., Aerts, F. H., & Berger, H. J. (2001). Cognitive styles in high-functioning adolescents with autistic disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31, 55–66. Scholar
  41. Van Boxtel, J. J. A., & Lu, H. (2013). A predictive coding perspective on autism spectrum disorders. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 19. Scholar
  42. Van der Hallen, R., Evers, K., Brewaeys, K., Van den Noortgate, W., & Wagemans, J. (2015). Global processing takes time: a meta-analysis on local-global visual processing in ASD. Psychological Bulletin, 141, 549–573. Scholar
  43. Van der Hallen, R., Vanmarcke, S., Noens, I., & Wagemans, J. (2017). Hierarchical letters in ASD: High stimulus variability under different attentional modes. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47, 1854–1865. Scholar
  44. Wang, L., Mottron, L., Peng, D., Berthiaume, C., & Dawson, M. (2007). Local bias and local-to-global interference without global deficit: A robust finding in autism under various conditions of attention, exposure time and visual angle. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 24, 550–574. Scholar
  45. Wechsler, D. (2003). WISC-IV technical and interpretive manual. San Antonio: Psychological Corporation.Google Scholar
  46. Wyatt, N., & Machado, L. (2013). Evidence inhibition responds reactively to the salience of distracting information during focused attention. PLoS One, 8, e62809. Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • María Felipa Soriano
    • 1
  • Antonio J. Ibáñez-Molina
    • 2
  • Natalia Paredes
    • 3
  • Pedro Macizo
    • 3
    • 4
  1. 1.St. Agustin Universitary HospitalJaénSpain
  2. 2.Departamento de PsicologíaUniversity of JaénJaénSpain
  3. 3.Departamento de Psicología Experimental. Facultad de PsicologíaUniversidad de GranadaGranadaSpain
  4. 4.Mind, Brain and Behavior Research CenterCIMCYCGranadaSpain

Personalised recommendations