Ensemble perception, the ability to assess automatically the summary of large amounts of information presented in visual scenes, is available early in typical development. This ability might be compromised in autistic children, who are thought to present limitations in maintaining summary statistics representations for the recent history of sensory input. Here we examined ensemble perception of facial emotional expressions in 35 autistic children, 30 age- and ability-matched typical children and 25 typical adults. Participants received three tasks: a) an ‘ensemble’ emotion discrimination task; b) a baseline (single-face) emotion discrimination task; and c) a facial expression identification task. Children performed worse than adults on all three tasks. Unexpectedly, autistic and typical children were, on average, indistinguishable in their precision and accuracy on all three tasks. Computational modelling suggested that, on average, autistic and typical children used ensemble-encoding strategies to a similar extent; but ensemble perception was related to non-verbal reasoning abilities in autistic but not in typical children. Eye-movement data also showed no group differences in the way children attended to the stimuli. Our combined findings suggest that the abilities of autistic and typical children for ensemble perception of emotions are comparable on average.
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- ensemble perception
- summary statistics
- facial expressions