Thursday, November 02, 2006

Verbatim: Simon Baron-Cohen's beetles

This may be the first in an occasional series of direct quotes (varying greatly in content) from peer-reviewed papers or scholarly books reporting or reviewing autism research. Sometimes a paraphrase just doesn't do it.

Here's Simon Baron-Cohen:

It is known that children with autism have superior detection of detailed features in visual search tasks (O'Riordan, Plaisted, Driver, & Baron-Cohen, 2001). This can be seen as a talent, rather than a deficit. Experimentalists such as Plaisted at times see this as "enhanced discrimination" (Plaisted, O'Riordan, & Baron-Cohen, 1998) and at other times as "reduced generalization" (Plaisted, 2001). This illustrates that the very same data can be seen from opposite perspectives. "Superior discrimination of difference" highlights that although perception is abnormal in autism, it may not be arising because of damage or disorder in a perceptual mechanism, but because that mechanism is more finely tuned, functioning at a higher level. "Reduced discrimination of generality" may be a consequence of superior dicrimination of difference, but why highlight it? If the person's attentional system is tuned to notice how things differ, then of course they are going to detect differences more than controls do, and report similarity less than controls do. Focussing on the "reduced discrimination of similarity" gives the impression that the person has a deficit in a mechanism that detects similarity, essentially putting a negative spin on what is really a talent. It's like saying that someone who can tell you the names of 20 types of beetle has a deficit in saying they are all the same. To you and me they are all just beetles. To the careful observer, they are each unique.

From: Baron-Cohen, S. (2005). Enhanced attention to detail and hyper-systemizing in autism. Commentary on Milne, E., Swettenham, J., & Campbell, R. Motion perception in autism: a review. Current Psychology of Cognition, 23, 59-64.


O'Riordan, M.A., Plaisted, K.C., & Baron-Cohen, S. (1998). Enhanced discrimination of novel, highly-similar stimuli by adults with autism during a perceptual learning task. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 39, 765-775.

O’Riordan, M. A., Plaisted, K. C., Driver, J., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2001). Superior visual search in autism. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, 27, 719-730.

Plaisted, K. C. (2001). Reduced generalisation : 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.