Perception Journal Club

Abnormal Adaptive Face-Coding Mechanisms in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

In low-level vision, exquisite sensitivity to variation in luminance is achieved by adaptive mechanisms that adjust neural sensitivity to the prevailing luminance level. In high-level vision, adaptive mechanisms contribute to our remarkable ability to distinguish thousands of similar faces. A clear example of this sort of adaptive coding is the face-identity aftereffect, in which adaptation to a particular face biases perception toward the opposite identity. Here we investigated face adaptation in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by asking them to discriminate between two face identities, with and without prior adaptation to opposite-identity faces. The ASD group discriminated the identities with the same precision as did the age- and ability-matched control group, showing that face identification per se was unimpaired. However, children with ASD showed significantly less adaptation than did their typical peers, with the amount of adaptation correlating significantly with current symptomatology, and face aftereffects of children with elevated symptoms only one third those of controls. These results show that although children with ASD can learn a simple discrimination between two identities, adaptive face-coding mechanisms are severely compromised, offering a new explanation for previously reported face-perception difficulties and possibly for some of the core social deficits in ASD.