Too much detail, or not enough? How do children with Fragile X process visual information?

The way that our brains process visual information is very important, as it allows us to interpret and give meaning to the information being sent from our eyes. There are two different styles in which our brain does this:

  • Local processing style: mainly looking at the smaller details of a visual scene, i.e. the leaves on a tree, ignoring the overall shape of the tree.

  • Global processing style: focussing on the overall meaning of a visual scene, i.e the tree, ignoring the smaller details

It is important that we use a mixture of these two styles, so that we get enough detail about the world around us, but not so much information that it is overwhelming. For instance, if we were to place an equal importance on global and local items with our visual field, it would be extremely overwhelming and confusing. Getting the right balance of skills develops with age and most adults develop a style which relies most on global processing, and then supplement this with some local processing for the most important parts of the scene.

However, research has shown that individuals with severe autism focus too much on the fine details of visual information (local processing), which may be overwhelming and mean that they struggle to use or understand their visual information. However, little is known about how people with Fragile X Syndrome process and make sense of visual information, especially those who have both Fragile X and autism. As visual processing is so important, Carrie Ballantyne from the University of West Scotland conducted a recent study to find out more.

In the study, individuals with Fragile X were given a visual attention task to do on the computer (the Navon Task), which assessed whether they were using a local or global style. In addition, because these skills typically develop with age, the study included a wide range of ages (3-18 years), so that the researchers could see how these skills change over time and, for example, whether development of these skills is different or absent, or just delayed.

The study found that many of the children with Fragile X syndrome showed a delay, compared to children of the same age without Fragile X, in developing the ‘right’ balance of local and global processing. However, they did show skills similar to that of children of a similar mental age. This shows that, though delayed for their age, these skills were being developed by the children with Fragile X. The children who had both Fragile X and autism showed a poorer performance overall, but they too showed improvement over time, just at a slower rate than the other groups. There could be a number of reasons for these differences, including attention problems or language ability. Future research could help to find this out and show ways that children with Fragile X can be best supported to develop these skills, which are an important foundation for learning.

This study highlights that, though a child may show poor performance in a task, that does not necessarily mean that they are unable to do the task at all, that performance could be delayed rather than completely absent, highlighting the need to continue to teach and support them.

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