Processing of musical structure by high-functioning adolescents with autism spectrum disorders

Eve Marie Quintin, Anjali Bhatara, Hélène Poissant, Eric Fombonne, Daniel J. Levitin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Enhanced pitch perception and memory have been cited as evidence of a local processing bias in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). This bias is argued to account for enhanced perceptual functioning (Mottron & Burack, 2001; Mottron, Dawson, Soulières, Hubert, & Burack, 2006) and central coherence theories of ASD (Frith, 1989; Happé & Frith, 2006). A local processing bias confers a different cognitive style to individuals with ASD (Happé, 1999), which accounts in part for their good visuospatial and visuoconstructive skills. Here, we present analogues in the auditory domain, audiotemporal or audioconstructive processing, which we assess using a novel experimental task: a musical puzzle. This task evaluates the ability of individuals with ASD to process temporal sequences of musical events as well as various elements of musical structure and thus indexes their ability to employ a global processing style. Musical structures created and replicated by children and adolescents with ASD (10-19 years old) and typically developing children and adolescents (7-17 years old) were found to be similar in global coherence. Presenting a musical template for reference increased accuracy equally for both groups, with performance associated to performance IQ and short-term auditory memory. The overall pattern of performance was similar for both groups; some puzzles were easier than others and this was the case for both groups. Task performance was further found to be correlated with the ability to perceive musical emotions, more so for typically developing participants. Findings are discussed in light of the empathizing-systemizing theory of ASD (Baron-Cohen, 2009) and the importance of describing the strengths of individuals with ASD (Happé, 1999; Heaton, 2009).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)250-275
Number of pages26
JournalChild Neuropsychology
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 1 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Global processing
  • Music cognition
  • Musical structure
  • Perception of structure

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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