Performance of Children with Autism on the Embedded Figures Test: A Closer Look at a Popular Task

Abstract

The Embedded Figures Test assesses weak central coherence and individuals with autism are commonly assumed to perform superiorly; however, the evidence for this claim is somewhat mixed. Here, two large (N = 45 and 62) samples of high-functioning children (6–16 years) with autism spectrum disorder performed similarly to typically-developing children on accuracy and reaction time measures; this could not be attributed to insufficient power. Inconsistent past findings are most likely due to methodological and analysis techniques, as well as heterogeneity in central coherence within autism spectrum disorders. While this task has been useful in establishing weak central coherence as a cognitive theory in autism, inconsistent past findings and its inability to disentangle global and local processing suggest that it should be used with caution in the future.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Both the control and ASD groups in sample 1 show a pattern of verbal greater than performance IQ. The controls were not selected for any particular profile, so we can only assume that this is a typical sample of children from this area. We can speculate that their higher verbal than performance IQs are due to the influence that the literacy and numeracy hours have had in recent years that have not been accounted for in the test standardization given that both literacy and numeracy skills load onto verbal IQ. The literacy and numeracy hours are part of an educational strategy introduced into schools in the UK in September 1998. The WISC-III-UK used here was published prior to this in 1992.

  2. 2.

    The Block Design subtest of the WISC is thought to tap into local processing biases similarly to the EFT. Here, although the ASD group Block Design mean was higher than that of the controls despite a slightly lower pIQ mean, we found no difference between the ASD and control groups on this measure, t (70) = 0. 487.

  3. 3.

    Given the uneven group sizes in both samples, the same between group analyses of accuracy and the three reaction time methods were repeated with reduced ASD samples (randomly selected) in order to match the group sizes. Again, no significant results were found.

  4. 4.

    Although no previous studies found small effect sizes, calculations were also made for power to detect these, resulting in .13, δ = 0.82, critical t (70) = 1.99, for sample 1, and 0.18, δ = 1.05, critical t (110) = 1.98, for sample 2. In addition, power analyses were replicated specifically for the ANCOVA in analysis 3 with similar results. The power of our samples for this test and a medium effect size of Cohen’s f = .25 was of .56 in sample 1 for an alpha of .05, with λ = 4.60, critical F (1,69) = 3.98, and .75 for sample 2, with a λ = 7.00, critical F (1,109) = 3.93.

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Acknowledgments

The authors wish to thank Ade Owolabi, Sarah Johnson, Megan Fisher and Gemma Northam for their assistance in collecting the data, and the participating pupils and their schools. The study has been partially supported by a Medical Research Council grant G78/8085, a joint Medical Research Council/Economic and Social Research Council grant PTA-037-27-0107 and a British Academy Grant PDF/2009/213 to the first author and the Andalusian and Spanish government grants EX2004-0098, SEJ2007-67080/PSIC, P07-SEJ-02574, and CONSOLIDER-INGENIO 2010 CSD2008-00048 to the second author.

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White, S.J., Saldaña, D. Performance of Children with Autism on the Embedded Figures Test: A Closer Look at a Popular Task. J Autism Dev Disord 41, 1565–1572 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-011-1182-4

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Keywords

  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Central coherence
  • Local bias
  • Embedded figures
  • Inconsistent results
  • Cognitive heterogeneity