Royal Society Publishing

Towards an understanding of the mechanisms of weak central coherence effects: experiments in visual configural learning and auditory perception

Kate Plaisted, Lisa Saksida, José Alcántara, Emma Weisblatt


The weak central coherence hypothesis of Frith is one of the most prominent theories concerning the abnormal performance of individuals with autism on tasks that involve local and global processing. Individuals with autism often outperform matched nonautistic individuals on tasks in which success depends upon processing of local features, and underperform on tasks that require global processing. We review those studies that have been unable to identify the locus of the mechanisms that may be responsible for weak central coherence effects and those that show that local processing is enhanced in autism but not at the expense of global processing. In the light of these studies, we propose that the mechanisms which can give rise to ‘weak central coherence’ effects may be perceptual. More specifically, we propose that perception operates to enhance the representation of individual perceptual features but that this does not impact adversely on representations that involve integration of features. This proposal was supported in the two experiments we report on configural and feature discrimination learning in high–functioning children with autism. We also examined processes of perception directly, in an auditory filtering task which measured the width of auditory filters in individuals with autism and found that the width of auditory filters in autism were abnormally broad. We consider the implications of these findings for perceptual theories of the mechanisms underpinning weak central coherence effects.

Royal Society Login

Log in through your institution