The development of individuation in autism

Kirsten O'Hearn*, Steven Franconeri, Catherine Wright, Nancy Minshew, Beatriz Luna

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Evidence suggests that people with autism rely less on holistic visual information than typical adults. The current studies examine this by investigating core visual processes that contribute to holistic processing-namely, individuation and element grouping-and how they develop in participants with autism and typically developing (TD) participants matched for age, IQ, and gender. Individuation refers to the ability to "see" approximately four elements simultaneously; grouping elements can modify how many elements can be individuated. We examined these processes using two well-established paradigms, rapid enumeration and multiple object tracking (MOT). In both tasks, a performance limit of four elements in typical adults is thought to reflect individuation capacity. Participants with autism displayed a smaller individuation capacity than TD controls, regardless of whether they were enumerating static elements or tracking moving ones. To manipulate the holistic information available via element grouping, elements were arranged into a design in rapid enumeration, or moved together in MOT. Performance in participants with autism was affected to a similar degree as TD participants by element grouping, whether the manipulation helped or hurt performance, consistent with evidence that some types of gestalt/grouping information are processed typically in autism. There was substantial development from childhood to adolescence in the speed of individuation in those with autism, but not from adolescence to adulthood, a pattern distinct from TD participants. These results reveal how core visual processes function in autism, and provide insight into the architecture of vision (i.e., individuation appears distinct from visual strengths in autism, such as visual search).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)494-509
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2013


  • Autism
  • Configural
  • Gestalt
  • Individuation
  • Subitizing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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