Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 48, Issue 9, pp 3061–3074 | Cite as

Adults with Autism Tend to Undermine the Hidden Environmental Structure: Evidence from a Visual Associative Learning Task

  • Laurie-Anne Sapey-Triomphe
  • Sandrine Sonié
  • Marie-Anne Hénaff
  • Jérémie Mattout
  • Christina SchmitzEmail author
Original Paper


The learning-style theory of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) (Qian, Lipkin, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 5:77, 2011) states that ASD individuals differ from neurotypics in the way they learn and store information about the environment and its structure. ASD would rather adopt a lookup-table strategy (LUT: memorizing each experience), while neurotypics would favor an interpolation style (INT: extracting regularities to generalize). In a series of visual behavioral tasks, we tested this hypothesis in 20 neurotypical and 20 ASD adults. ASD participants had difficulties using the INT style when instructions were hidden but not when instructions were revealed. Rather than an inability to use rules, ASD would be characterized by a disinclination to generalize and infer such rules.


Autism Perception Categorization Learning Local and global processing 



We would like to thank all of the participants for their precious time, participation, feedbacks on the tasks, and enriching conversations. We also thank Nathalie Touil and Lucie Hannequin for taking care of the WAIS assessments of most of the participants, and for the interesting discussions about WAIS interpretation.

Author Contributions

Paradigms were designed by LAST, MAH, JM and CS, participants were recruited by SS, data collection and analyses were performed by LAST, the article was written by LAST, JM and CS. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.


This study was supported by a Scientific Research Council grant from the Vinatier Hospital Center, and was performed within the framework of the LABEX CORTEX (ANR-11-LABX-0042) of Université de Lyon, within the program “Investissements d’Avenir” (ANR-11-IDEX-0007) operated by the French National Research Agency (ANR).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

All authors declare that they have no conflict of interest to disclose.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in this study were in accordance with the standards of the French ethical guidelines and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Approval was obtained from the local ethics committee (French South East IV Committee for the Protection of Persons).

Informed Consent

Participants gave their written consent beforehand.


  1. Alderson-Day, B., & McGonigle-Chalmers, M. (2011). Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Category use in problem-solving in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 41(5), 555–565. Scholar
  2. American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, (4th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.Google Scholar
  3. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders V, DSM-V. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Asperger, H. (1944). Die ‘Autistischen Psychopathen’ im Kindesalter. Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheim, 117, 76–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Baez, S., & Ibanez, A. (2014). The effects of context processing on social cognition impairments in adults with Asperger’s syndrome. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 8, 270. Scholar
  6. Baez, S., Rattazzi, A., Gonzalez-Gadea, M. L., Torralva, T., Vigliecca, N. S., Decety, J., et al. (2012). Integrating intention and context: Assessing social cognition in adults with Asperger syndrome. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 302. Scholar
  7. Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J., & Clubley, E. (2001). The autism-spectrum quotient (AQ): Evidence from Asperger syndrome/high-functioning autism, males and females, scientists and mathematicians. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(1), 5–17.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Bertone, A., Mottron, L., Jelenic, P., & Faubert, J. (2005). Enhanced and diminished visuo-spatial information processing in autism depends on stimulus complexity. Brain: A Journal of Neurology, 128(Pt 10), 2430–2441. Scholar
  9. Bott, L., Brock, J., Brockdorff, N., Boucher, J., & Lamberts, K. (2006). Perceptual similarity in autism. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (2006), 59(7), 1237–1254. Scholar
  10. Carmo, J. C., Souza, C., Gonçalves, F., Pinho, S., Filipe, C. N., & Lachmann, T. (2017). Effects of categorical representation on visuospatial working memory in autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 39(2), 131–141. Scholar
  11. Church, B. A., Krauss, M. S., Lopata, C., Toomey, J. A., Thomeer, M. L., Coutinho, M. V., et al. (2010). Atypical categorization in children with high functioning autism spectrum disorder. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17(6), 862–868. Scholar
  12. Church, B. A., Rice, C. L., Dovgopoly, A., Lopata, C. J., Thomeer, M. L., Nelson, A., & Mercado, E. (2015). Learning, plasticity, and atypical generalization in children with autism. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 22(5), 1342–1348. Scholar
  13. Dawson, M., Mottron, L. (2008). Learning and memory: A comprehensive reference III cognitive psychology. In J. Byrne, & H.L. Roediger (Eds.) Learning in autism, (pp. 759–772). Oxford: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  14. Dawson, M., Mottron, L., & Gernsbacher, M. A. (2005). Learning and memory: A comprehensive reference. In J. Byrne (Ed.) Learning in autism, vol. 2, (pp. 759–772). Oxford: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  15. Fisher, A. V., Godwin, K. E., Matlen, B. J., & Unger, L. (2014). Development of category-based induction and semantic knowledge. Child Development. Scholar
  16. Friston, K. (2003). Learning and inference in the brain. Neural Networks: The Official Journal of the International Neural Network Society, 16(9), 1325–1352. Scholar
  17. Frith, U. (1991). Autism and Asperger syndrome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Froehlich, A. L., Anderson, J. S., Bigler, E. D., Miller, J. S., Lange, N. T., DuBray, M. B., et al. (2012). Intact prototype formation but impaired generalization in autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6(2), 921–930. Scholar
  19. Gastgeb, H. Z., Dundas, E. M., Minshew, N. J., & Strauss, M. S. (2012). Category formation in autism: Can individuals with autism form categories and prototypes of dot patterns? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(8), 1694–1704. Scholar
  20. Gastgeb, H. Z., & Strauss, M. S. (2012). Categorization in ASD: The role of typicality and development. Perspectives on Language Learning and Education, 19(2), 66–74. Scholar
  21. Grandin, T. (1997). A personal perspective on autism. In D. J. Cohen & F. R. Volkmar (Eds.) Handbook of autism and pervasive developmental disorders, (pp. 1032–1042). Hoboken: Wiley.Google Scholar
  22. Grossberg, S. (1999). The link between brain learning, attention, and consciousness. Consciousness and Cognition, 8(1), 1–44. Scholar
  23. Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nervous Child, 2(3), 217–250.Google Scholar
  24. Klinger, L. G., & Dawson, G. (2001). Prototype formation in autism. Development and Psychopathology, 13(1), 111–124.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Koldewyn, K., Jiang, Y. V., Weigelt, S., & Kanwisher, N. (2013). Global/local processing in autism: Not a disability, but a disinclination. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(10), 2329–2340. Scholar
  26. Lawson, R. P., Mathys, C., & Rees, G. (2017). Adults with autism overestimate the volatility of the sensory environment. Nature Neuroscience. Scholar
  27. Le Couteur, A., Lord, C., & Rutter, M. (2003). The autism diagnostic interview-revised (ADI-R). Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.Google Scholar
  28. Lord, C., Risi, S., Lambrecht, L., Cook, E. H., Leventhal, B. L., DiLavore, P. C., et al. (2000). The autism diagnostic observation schedule-generic: A standard measure of social and communication deficits associated with the spectrum of autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 30(3), 205–223.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Marcus, G. F., Fernandes, K. J., & Johnson, S. P. (2007). Infant rule learning facilitated by speech. Psychological Science, 18(5), 387–391. Scholar
  30. 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(4), 415–433. Scholar
  31. Palmer, C. J., Lawson, R. P., & Hohwy, J. (2017). Bayesian approaches to autism: Towards volatility, action, and behavior. Psychological Bulletin. Scholar
  32. Plaisted, K. C. (2001). Reduced generalization in autism: An alternative to weak central coherence. In J. A. Burack, T. Charman, N. Yirmiya & P. R. Zelazo (Eds.), The development of autism: Perspectives from theory and research (pp. 149–169). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.Google Scholar
  33. Qian, N., & Lipkin, R. M. (2011). A learning-style theory for understanding autistic behaviors. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 5, 77. Scholar
  34. Robic, S., Sonié, S., Fonlupt, P., Henaff, M.-A., Touil, N., Coricelli, G., et al. (2014). Decision-making in a changing world: A study in autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Scholar
  35. Senju, A., Southgate, V., White, S., & Frith, U. (2009). Mindblind eyes: An absence of spontaneous theory of mind in Asperger syndrome. Science (New York, N.Y.), 325(5942), 883–885. Scholar
  36. Sonié, S., Kassai, B., Pirat, E., Masson, S., Bain, P., Robinson, J., et al. (2011). French version of screening questionnaire for high-functioning autism or Asperger syndrome in adolescent: Autism Spectrum Quotient, Empathy Quotient and Systemizing Quotient. Protocol and questionnaire translation. Presse Médicale (Paris, France: 1983), 40(4 Pt 1), e181–e188. Scholar
  37. Soulières, I., Mottron, L., Giguère, G., & Larochelle, S. (2011). Category induction in autism: Slower, perhaps different, but certainly possible. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (2006), 64(2), 311–327. Scholar
  38. Soulières, I., Mottron, L., Saumier, D., & Larochelle, S. (2007). Atypical categorical perception in autism: Autonomy of discrimination? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37(3), 481–490. Scholar
  39. Suzanne Scherf, K., Behrmann, M., Minshew, N., & Luna, B. (2008). Atypical development of face and greeble recognition in autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49(8), 838–847. Scholar
  40. Van der Hallen, R., Evers, K., Boets, B., Steyaert, J., Noens, I., & Wagemans, J. (2016). Visual search in ASD: Instructed versus spontaneous local and global processing. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(9), 3023–3036. Scholar
  41. 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(3), 549–573. Scholar
  42. Vladusich, T., Olu-Lafe, O., Kim, D.-S., Tager-Flusberg, H., & Grossberg, S. (2010). Prototypical category learning in high-functioning autism. Autism Research: Official Journal of the International Society for Autism Research, 3(5), 226–236. Scholar
  43. Weston, D. R., & Turiel, E. (1980). Act–rule relations: Children’s concepts of social rules. Developmental Psychology, 16(5), 417–424. Scholar
  44. White, S. J., Burgess, P. W., & Hill, E. L. (2009). Impairments on “open-ended” executive function tests in autism. Autism Research: Official Journal of the International Society for Autism Research, 2(3), 138–147. Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Lyon Neuroscience Research Center, Brain Dynamics and Cognition TeamINSERM UMRS 1028, CNRS UMR 5292, Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1, Université de LyonLyonFrance
  2. 2.Centre de Ressource Autisme Rhône-AlpesCentre Hospitalier Le VinatierBronFrance
  3. 3.Hôpital Saint-Jean-de-DieuLyonFrance

Personalised recommendations