Basic Abnormalities in Visual Processing Affect Face Processing at an Early Age in Autism Spectrum Disorder

P.H.J.M. Vlamings, L.M. Jonkman, E. van Daalen, R. van der Gaag, C. Kemner

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Abstract

Background: A detailed visual processing style has been noted in autism spectrum disorder (ASD); this contributes to problems in face processing and has been directly related to abnormal processing of spatial frequencies (SFs). Little is known about the early development of face processing in ASD and the relation with abnormal SF processing. We investigated whether young ASD children show abnormalities in low spatial frequency (LSF, global) and high spatial frequency (HSF, detailed) processing and explored whether these are crucially involved in the early development of face processing.

Methods: Three-to 4-year-old children with ASD (n = 22) were compared with developmentally delayed children without ASD (n = 17). Spatial frequency processing was studied by recording visual evoked potentials from visual brain areas while children passively viewed gratings (HSF/LSF). In addition, children watched face stimuli with different expressions, filtered to include only HSF or LSF.

Results: Enhanced activity in visual brain areas was found in response to HSF versus LSF information in children with ASD, in contrast to control subjects. Furthermore, facial-expression processing was also primarily driven by detail in ASD.

Conclusions: Enhanced visual processing of detailed (HSF) information is present early in ASD and occurs for neutral (gratings), as well as for socially relevant stimuli (facial expressions). These data indicate that there is a general abnormality in visual SF processing in early ASD and are in agreement with suggestions that a fast LSF subcortical face processing route might be affected in ASD. This could suggest that abnormal visual processing is causative in the development of social problems in ASD.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1107-1113
Number of pages7
JournalBiological Psychiatry
Volume68
Issue number12
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 15 Dec 2010

Keywords

  • Autism
  • EVOKED-POTENTIALS
  • FACIAL EXPRESSIONS
  • FEARFUL FACES
  • HIGH-FUNCTIONING CHILDREN
  • PERCEPTION
  • PERVASIVE DEVELOPMENTAL DISORDER
  • PREFERENTIAL LOOKING
  • SELECTIVE ATTENTION
  • SPATIAL-FREQUENCY
  • YOUNG-CHILDREN
  • brain
  • early development
  • face perception
  • spatial frequency
  • visual

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