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Tijdschrift voor Psychiatrie 44 (2002) 2, 83 - 94

New research

Cognitive styles in adolescents with autism spectrum disorders

H.J.C. Berger, F.H.T.M. Aerts, A. van der Sijde, P.A.M. van den Bogart-Bex, J.P.W.M. Teunisse

background It has been proposed that weak central coherence and poor mental shifting may be primary cognitive styles in autism spectrum disorders. Both concepts have a strong intuitive appeal, but the empirical evidence and factorial validity are controversial. However identification of these cognitive deficits is of great relevance to adequate understanding and treatment of patients with autism spectrum disorders.
aim This study addresses the operationalization and the identification of both cognitive styles in 56 nonretarded adolescents with autism spectrum disorders.
method Both cognitive domains are operationalized in a comprehensive neuropsychological test battery, tested by factor analysis and related to measures of social functioning.
results A factor analysis supports the structural validity of the concepts central coherence and mental shifting. Central coherence is not a homogeneous construct and is represented by two constituent factors: the ability of 'piecemeal processing' and 'process meaning'. Mental shifting is represented by one single factor. Weak central coherence and poor mental shifting do not appear to be significantly related to symptom severity, social intelligence and social competence.
conclusion Weak central coherence and poor mental shifting do not appear to be universal to patients with autism spectrum disorders. Furthermore, both these cognitive styles are found independently of each other, which is in favour of a need for differential treatment.

keywords autism spectrum disorders, central coherence, cognitive shifting, social competence