Past research has shown a superiority of participants with high-functioning autism over comparison groups in memorizing picture-pitch associations and in detecting pitch changes in melodies. A subset of individuals with autism, known as “musical savants,” is also known to possess absolute pitch. This superiority might be due to an abnormally high sensitivity to fine-grained pitch differences in sounds. To test this hypothesis, psychoacoustic tasks were devised so as to use a signal detection methodology. Participants were all musically untrained and were divided into a group of 12 high-functioning individuals with autism and a group of 12 normally developing individuals. Their task was to judge the pitch of pure tones in a “same-different” discrimination task and in a “high-low” categorization task. In both tasks, the obtained psychometric functions revealed higher pitch sensitivity for subjects with autism, with a more pronounced advantage over control participants in the categorization task. These findings confirm that pitch processing is enhanced in “high-functioning” autism. Superior performance in pitch discrimination and categorization extends previous findings of enhanced visual performance to the auditory domain. Thus, and as predicted by the enhanced perceptual functioning model for peaks of ability in autism (Mottron & Burack, 2001), autistic individuals outperform typically developing population in a variety of low-level perceptual tasks.

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