Heterogeneity in perceptual category learning by high functioning children with autism spectrum disorder

Eduardo Mercado, Barbara A. Church, Mariana V.C. Coutinho, Alexander Dovgopoly, Christopher J. Lopata, Jennifer A. Toomey, Marcus L. Thomeer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


Previous research suggests that high functioning (HF) children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) sometimes have problems learning categories, but often appear to perform normally in categorization tasks. The deficits that individuals with ASD show when learning categories have been attributed to executive dysfunction, general deficits in implicit learning, atypical cognitive strategies, or abnormal perceptual biases and abilities. Several of these psychological explanations for category learning deficits have been associated with neural abnormalities such as cortical underconnectivity. The present study evaluated how well existing neurally based theories account for atypical perceptual category learning shown by HF children with ASD across multiple category learning tasks involving novel, abstract shapes. Consistent with earlier results, children’s performances revealed two distinct patterns of learning and generalization associated with ASD: one was indistinguishable from performance in typically developing children; the other revealed dramatic impairments. These two patterns were evident regardless of training regimen or stimulus set. Surprisingly, some children with ASD showed both patterns. Simulations of perceptual category learning could account for the two observed patterns in terms of differences in neural plasticity. However, no current psychological or neural theory adequately explains why a child with ASD might show such large fluctuations in category learning ability across training conditions or stimulus sets.

Original languageEnglish
Article number42
JournalFrontiers in Integrative Neuroscience
Issue numberJune
Publication statusPublished - Jun 23 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Asperger’s
  • Autism
  • Categorization
  • Cortical plasticity
  • Hyperspecificity
  • Prototype

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sensory Systems
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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