One commonly reported feature of autism-spectrum-disorder (ASD) is the tendency to favor details over whole-object properties. That is, to notice the forest and not the trees. A study appearing in the journal Vision Research quantifies this effect experimentally1.
The authors of this study relied on a concept known as “visual crowding.” This term refers to a commonly experienced phenomenon in which objects that are spaced closely together are more difficult to individually attend to or resolve. For example, some have invoked this idea to explain why it is difficult to pick individual faces out of a crowd. It is important to note, that there is a spatial-scale, a threshold, associated with visual crowding, such that objects of a given size must be spaced within some distance limit to be considered within the crowding limit (although some objects are so large that they are immune to such effects).
Interestingly, the authors found that children with ASD had much lower thresholds for visual crowding than those without the disorder (see figure, above). That is: those with ASD were able to resolve and report the properties of more densely packed objects than those without ASD. Furthermore, children with ASD out-performed non-ASD children in the employed task within the crowding limit (as defined by the threshold for non-ASD children) while underperforming outside this limit.
Such a finding suggests structural irregularities in the visual-corticies of these children; while this is nothing special in and of itself, there are many different cortical areas which are affected by ASD, which leads to the intriguing possibility (suggested by many) that the disorder might be a generalized structural deficit of the cerebral cortex.
1. Baldassi S, Pei F, Megna N, Recupero G, Viespoli M, Igliozzi R, Tancredi R, Muratori F, Cioni G, Search superiority in autism within, but not outside the crowding regime, Vision Research, In Press, DOI: 10.1016/j.visres.2009.06.007.