Understanding sensory symptoms in autism: seeing the trees, but not the forest

2014

Challenge

People with autism report exceptionally quick and accurate perception of small visual details, but often have difficulty integrating the details into their overall view of the world—prompting the colloquial symptomatic description of “seeing the trees, but not the forest.” The neurobiological roots of autistic sensory symptoms were unknown.

Advance

IRP researchers led by Chris I. Baker, Ph.D., discovered reduced activity in visual brain areas of individuals with autism when they were “seeing the trees, but not the forest.” However, by simply giving individuals more time to process visual information, Baker and his team showed full restoration of “global perception” in autistic individuals, as well increased activity in visual areas of the brain.

Impact

Dr. Baker’s research sheds light on the neurobiological basis of a common symptom of autism and suggests that the sensory symptoms associated with the condition may reflect a fundamental perturbation in neural circuitry. Understanding that autistic perception deficits are due to atypical processing of information in the visual parts of the brain provides researchers with target areas for the development of future therapies. 

Publications

Robertson CE, Thomas C, Kravitz DJ, Wallace GL, Baron-Cohen S, Martin A, Baker CI. (2014). Global motion perception deficits in autism are reflected as early as primary visual cortex. Brain. 137(Pt 9), 2588-99.