Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Category use in problem-solving as a window on the autistic cognitive style.
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Recent research on cognitive functioning in autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) has seen a divergence in approach between accounts that emphasise a general cognitive style (Baron-Cohen, 2002; Happé & Frith, 2006) versus those who focus on specific cognitive deficits and difficulties (Plaisted et al, 2006; Minshew et al, 2002). The present study attempted to address this by investigating categorisation abilities in problem-solving; a set of specific processes which also have implications for cognitive style and general information processing. Two tasks were devised based on the Twenty Questions verbal inquiry paradigm (Mosher & Hornsby, 1966) to examine factors affecting category use in ASD problem-solving. A group of high-functioning children with autism (n =14) and a group of typically-developing controls (n = 14) were tested on both tasks. Participants were required to ask questions to identify a series of items selected by the experimenter from a closed set, in a task structure similar to guessing games such as Guess Who?. Effects of task content, cognitive flexibility, memory and language were analysed. ASD participants were significantly impaired in successful category use on trials containing primarily conceptual content, but demonstrated unimpaired levels of performance on trials where perceptual content dictated grouping. However, ASD participants also consistently asked questions of lower quality than controls, indicating some form of persistent local focus on the level of sets. In addition, verbal IQ was found to specifically support performance in ASD participants but not controls. The implications of these findings are discussed with reference to understanding of the autistic cognitive style, methodological issues in the matching of ASD individuals, and the possible neural basis of cognitive abnormalities in autistic spectrum disorders.