Structural and contextual priors affect visual search in children with and without autism

Mar 20, 2021

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Bayesian predictive coding theories of autism spectrum disorder propose that impaired acquisition or a broader shape of prior probability distributions lies at the core of the condition. However, we still know very little about how probability distributions are learned and encoded by children, let alone children with autism. Here, we take advantage of a recently developed distribution learning paradigm to characterize how children with and without autism acquire information about probability distributions. Twenty-four autistic and twenty-five matched neurotypical children searched for an odd-one-out target among a set of distractor lines with orientations sampled from a Gaussian distribution repeated across multiple trials to allow for learning of the parameters (mean and variance) of the distribution. We could measure the width (variance) of the participant’s encoded distribution by introducing a target-distractor role-reversal while varying the similarity between target and previous distractor mean. Both groups performed similarly on the visual search task and learned the distractor distribution to a similar extent. However, the variance learned was much broader than the one presented, consistent with less informative priors in children irrespective of autism diagnosis. These findings have important implications for Bayesian accounts of perception throughout development, and for Bayesian accounts of autism specifically.