Abstraction is an inductive process through which specific details become united by a general concept. Abstraction incorporates two sub-skills: concept identification which involves recognizing patterns created by an external agent, and concept formation which is more difficult, requiring independent creation of a schema to organize information. Impairments in concept identification and formation are theorized to underlie a variety of practical difficulties of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD; e.g., failure to generalize learning in one context to a similar, but new context). However, past research has yielded mixed results, with some finding significant impairment and others finding intact concept identification and formation. Contradictory findings may be due to differences in assessment methodology. We assessed concept identification and formation abilities using the Delis-Kaplan Executive Function System (D-KEFS) Sorting task. We hypothesized that (1) we would replicate previous findings of intact concept identification but impaired concept formation in individuals with ASD (Minshew et al., 2002); (2) impairments in concept formation would remain even after accounting for differences in IQ, working memory ability, and test anxiety; and (3) worse impairments would be associated with more severe autism symptoms. The sample consisted of 27 high-functioning (IQ > 80) adolescents with ASD and 27 age- (M 14.8 years) and IQ- (M 102.8) matched typically-developing controls. One-way ANOVAs explored group differences on task performance variables. As hypothesized, our sample demonstrated intact concept identification abilities, F(1, 52) = 2.90, p = 0.095, but impaired concept formation abilities, F(1, 52) = 6.53, p = 0.01. A linear regression analysis revealed that working memory ability and test anxiety were not significant predictors of concept formation abilities. After accounting for IQ in a regression model, our hypothesis was partly borne out in that individuals with ASD continued to show impairment in concept formation, yet at trend-level significance (p = 0.058). Two-tailed Pearson correlations revealed no significant correlations between a measure of autism symptomatology and concept formation or concept identification ability. Our findings add to a growing body of research showing a dissociation between concept identification and concept formation abilities in individuals with ASD. This dissociation existing at trend-level significance after statistically controlling for IQ suggests that it may exist across levels of cognitive functioning in ASD. Our finding that concept formation ability was not significantly associated with a measure autism symptomatology somewhat weakens the theoretical significance of concept formation deficits in ASD.



College and Department

Family, Home, and Social Sciences; Psychology



Date Submitted


Document Type





autism spectrum disorder, abstraction, concept formation, concept identification

Included in

Psychology Commons