Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 38, Issue 9, pp 1721–1730 | Cite as

When Prototypes Are Not Best: Judgments Made by Children with Autism

  • Catherine J. MolesworthEmail author
  • Dermot M. Bowler
  • James A. Hampton
Original Paper


The current study used a factorial comparison experimental design to investigate conflicting findings on prototype effects shown by children with autism (Klinger and Dawson, Dev Psychopathol 13:111–124, 2001; Molesworth et al., J Child Psychol Psychiatry 46:661–672, 2005). The aim was to see whether children with high-functioning autism could demonstrate prototype effects via categorization responses and whether failure to do so was related to difficulty understanding ambiguous task demands. Two thirds of the autism group did show an effect. The remainder, a sub-group defined by performance on a control task, did not. The discussion focuses on the influence of heterogeneity within the autism group and the ability to resolve ambiguity on task performance. Finally, an alternative experimental design is recommended for further research into these issues.


Autism Asperger syndrome Categorization Concepts Heterogeneity Prototype 



Thanks are due to the participants and their teachers for their invaluable assistance. Molesworth would also like to thank Claire Simmons for her comments on the data and on an earlier draft of this paper. The data presented here was submitted by Catherine Molesworth as part of her Ph.D. thesis (Department of Psychology, City University).


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.Google Scholar
  2. Baron-Cohen, S. (1988). Social and pragmatic deficits in autism: Cognitive or affective? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 18, 379–402.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bennetto, L., Pennington, B. F., & Rogers, S. J. (1996). Intact and impaired memory functions in autism. Child Development, 67, 1816–1835.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Berger, H. J., Van Spaendonck, K. P., Horstink, M. W., & Buytenhuijs, E. L., et al. (1993). Cognitive shifting as a predictor of progress in social understanding in high-functioning adolescents with autism: A prospective study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 23, 341–359.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bowler, D. M., Gardiner, J. M., Grice, S., & Saavalainen, P. (2000). Memory illusions: False recall and recognition in adults with Asperger’s syndrome. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 109, 663–672.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bowler, D. M., Matthews, N. J., & Gardiner, J. M. (1997). Asperger’s syndrome and memory: Similarity to autism but not amnesia. Neuropsychologia, 35, 65–70.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Burack, J. A., Iarocci, G., Flanagan, T. D., & Bowler, D. M. (2004). On mosaics and melting pots: Conceptual considerations of comparison and matching strategies. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34, 65–73.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Cabeza, R., Bruce, V., Kato, T., & Oda, M. (1999). The prototype effect in face recognition: Extension and limits. Memory and Cognition, 27, 139–151.Google Scholar
  9. Dennis, M., Lazenby, A. L., & Lockyer, L. (2001). Inferential language in high-function children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31, 47–54.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dunn L. M., Dunn L. M., Whetton C., & Burley, J. (1997). The British picture vocabulary scale. London: NFER-Nelson.Google Scholar
  11. Eales, M. J. (1993). Pragmatic impairments in adults with childhood diagnoses of autism or developmental receptive language disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 23, 593–617.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Frith, U., & Snowling, M. (1983). Reading for meaning and reading for sound in autistic and dyslexic children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 1, 329–342.Google Scholar
  13. Hampton, J. A. (1996). Conjunctions of visually based categories: Overextension and compensation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 22, 378–396.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hampton, J. A. (1997). Psychological representation of concepts. In M. A. Conway (Ed.), Cognitive models of memory studies in cognition (pp. 81–110). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  15. Happé, F. (1995). The role of age and verbal ability in the theory of mind task performance of subjects with autism. Child Development, 66, 843–855.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Happé, F. (1996). Studying weak central coherence at low levels: Children with autism do not succumb to visual illusions: A research note. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 37, 873–877.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Happé, F. (1997). Central coherence and theory of mind in autism: Reading homographs in context. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 15, 1–12.Google Scholar
  18. Hayes, B. K., & Conway, R. N. (2000). Concept acquisition in children with mild intellectual disability: Factors affecting the abstraction of prototypical information. Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability, 25, 217–234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hayes, B. K., & Taplin, J. E. (1993). Development of conceptual knowledge in children with mental retardation. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 98, 293–303.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Hermelin, B., & O’Connor, N. (1970). Psychological experiments with autistic children. Oxford: Plenum Press.Google Scholar
  21. Hughes, C., Russell, J., & Robbins, T. W. (1994). Evidence for executive dysfunction in autism. Neuropsychologia, 32, 477–492.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Jarrold, C., & Brock, J. (2004). To match or not to match? Methodological issues in autism-related research. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34, 81–86.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Jolliffe, T., & Baron-Cohen, S. (1999). A test of central coherence theory: Linguistic processing in high-functioning adults with autism or Asperger syndrome: Is local coherence impaired? Cognition, 71, 149–185.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Joseph, R. M., Tager-Flusberg, H., & Lord, C. (2002). Cognitive profiles and social-communicative functioning in children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 43, 807–821.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Klinger, L. G., & Dawson, G. (1995). A fresh look at categorization abilities in persons with autism. In E. Schopler & G. B. Mesibov (Eds.), Learning and cognition in autism (pp. 119–136). New York: Plenum Press.Google Scholar
  26. Klinger, L. G., & Dawson, G. (2001). Prototype formation in autism. Development and Psychopathology, 13, 111–124.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Metcalfe, J., & Fisher, R. P. (1986). The relation between recognition memory and classification learning. Memory and Cognition, 14, 164–173.Google Scholar
  28. Miller, J. N., & Ozonoff, S. (2000). The external validity of Asperger disorder: Lack of evidence from the domain of neuropsychology. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 109, 227–238.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Minshew, N. J., Goldstein, G., Muenz, L. R., & Payton, J. B. (1992). Neuropsychological functioning nonmentally retarded autistic individuals. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 14, 749–761.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Molesworth, C. J., Bowler, D. M., & Hampton, J. A. (2005). The prototype effect in recognition memory: Intact in autism?. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 46, 661–672.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Mottron, L. (2004). Matching Strategies in Cognitive Research with Individuals with High-Functioning Autism: Current Practices, Instrument Biases, and Recommendations. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34, 19–27.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Murphy, G. L. (2002). The big book of concepts. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  33. Omohundro, J. (1981). Recognition vs. classification of ill-defined category exemplars. Memory and Cognition, 9, 324–331.Google Scholar
  34. Ozonoff, S., & Miller, J. N. (1995). Teaching theory of mind: A new approach to social skills training for individuals with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 25, 415–433.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Plaisted, K. (2001). Reduced generalization in autism: An alternative to weak central coherence. In J. A. Burack, T. Charman, et al. (Eds.), The development of autism: Perspectives from theory and research (pp. 149–169). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  36. Posner, M. I., & Keele, S. W. (1968). On the genesis of abstract ideas. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 77, 353–363.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Ropar, D., & Mitchell, P. (2001). Susceptibility to illusions and performance on visuospatial tasks in individuals with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 42, 539–549.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Rosch, E. (1975a). Cognitive representations of semantic categories. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104, 192–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Rosch, E. (1975b). The nature of mental codes for color categories. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 1, 303–322.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Rosch, E., Simpson, C., & Miller, R. S. (1976). Structural bases of typicality effects. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 2, 491–502.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Solso, R. L., & McCarthy, J. E. (1981). Prototype formation of faces: A case of pseudo-memory. British Journal of Psychology, 72, 499–503.Google Scholar
  42. Surian, L., Baron-Cohen, S., & Van der Lely, H. (1996). Are children with autism deaf to Gricean maxims? Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 1, 55–71.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Swettenham, J. (1996). Can children be taught to understand false belief using computers? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 37, 157–165.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Tager-Flusberg, H. (1981). On the nature of linguistic functioning in early infantile autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 11, 45–56.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Tager-Flusberg, H. (1985a). Basic level and superordinate level categorization by autistic, mentally retarded, and normal children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 40, 450–469.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Tager-Flusberg, H. (1985b). The conceptual basis for referential word meaning in children with autism. Child Development, 56, 1167–1178.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Tager-Flusberg, H. (1991). Semantic processing in the free recall of autistic children: Further evidence for a cognitive deficit. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 9, 417–430.Google Scholar
  48. Ungerer, J. A., & Sigman, M. D. (1987). Categorization skills and receptive language development in autistic children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 17, 3–16.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Wing, L., & Gould, J. (1979). Severe impairments of social interaction and associated abnormalities in children: Epidemiology and classification. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 9, 11–29.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Younger, B. (1990). Infant categorization: Memory for category-level and specific item information. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 50, 131–155.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Catherine J. Molesworth
    • 1
    Email author
  • Dermot M. Bowler
    • 1
  • James A. Hampton
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyCity UniversityLondonUK

Personalised recommendations