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Neuropsychologia. 2011 Apr;49(5):848-857. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2011.01.027. Epub 2011 Jan 21.

Enhanced mental image mapping in autism.

Author information

1
Neural Systems Group, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, United States; Centre d'excellence en Troubles envahissants du développement de l'Université de Montréal (CETEDUM), Hôpital Rivière-des-Prairies, Montréal, Canada. Electronic address: isabelle@nmr.mgh.harvard.edu.
2
Neural Systems Group, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, United States.
3
Centre d'excellence en Troubles envahissants du développement de l'Université de Montréal (CETEDUM), Hôpital Rivière-des-Prairies, Montréal, Canada.
4
Centre d'excellence en Troubles envahissants du développement de l'Université de Montréal (CETEDUM), Hôpital Rivière-des-Prairies, Montréal, Canada; Département de psychiatrie, Université de Montréal, Canada.

Abstract

The formation and manipulation of mental images represents a key ability for successfully solving visuospatial tasks like Wechsler's Block Design or visual reasoning problems, tasks where autistics perform at higher levels than predicted by their Wechsler IQ. Visual imagery can be used to compare two mental images, allowing judgment of their relative properties. To examine higher visual processes in autism, and their possible role in explaining autistic visuospatial peaks, we carried out two mental imagery experiments in 23 autistic and 14 age and IQ matched, non-autistic adolescents and adults. Among autistics, 11 had significantly higher Block Design scores than predicted by their IQ. Experiment 1 involved imagining a letter inside a circle, followed by a decision concerning which of two highlighted portions of the circle would contain the greater proportion of the letter. Experiment 2 involved four classic mental rotation tasks utilizing two- and three-dimensional geometric figures, hands and letters. Autistics were more accurate in the formation and comparison of mental images than non-autistics. Autistics with a Block Design peak outperformed other participants in both speed and accuracy of mental rotation. Also, Performance IQ and Block Design scores were better predictors of mental rotation accuracy in autistic compared to non-autistic participants. The ability to form, access and manipulate visual mental representations may be more developed in autistics. We propose two complementary mechanisms to explain these processing advantages: (1) a global advantage in perceptual processing, discussed in the framework of the enhanced perceptual functioning model, and (2) particular strengths in veridical mapping, the ability to efficiently detect isomorphisms among entities and then to use these mappings to process stimulus characteristics, thereby facilitating judgments about their differences.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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