New research explains autistic’s exceptional visual abilities

April 5, 2011

Spatial distribution of regions showing more task-related activity in autistics than non-autistics for three processing domains, with faces in red, objects in green, and words in blue. (Credit: Human Brain Mapping, Wiley-Blackwell, Inc.)

Researchers at the University of Montreal Centre for Excellence in Pervasive Development Disorders (CETEDUM) have determined that people with autism concentrate more brain resources in the areas associated with visual detection and identification, and have less activity in the areas used to plan and control thoughts and actions.

This might explain their outstanding capacities in visual tasks.

The team published their findings inĀ Human Brain Mapping on April 4, 2011.

The researchers collated 15 years of data that covered the ways the autistic brain works when interpreting faces, objects and written words. The data came from 26 independent brain imaging studies that looked at a total of 357 autistic and 370 non-autistic individuals.

“Through this meta-analysis, we were able to observe that autistics exhibit more activity in the temporal and occipital regions and less activity in the frontal cortex than non-autistics. The identified temporal and occipital regions are typically involved in perceiving and recognizing patterns and objects. The reported frontal areas subserve higher cognitive functions such as decision making, cognitive control, planning and execution,” explained first author Fabienne Samson, who is also affiliated with the CETEDUM.

“The stronger engagement of the visual system, whatever the task, represents the first physiological confirmation that enhanced perceptual processing is a core feature of neural organization in this population. We now have a very strong statement about autism functioning which may be ground for cognitive accounts of autistic perception, learning, memory and reasoning.

“This finding shows that the autistic brain successfully adapts by reallocating brain areas to visual perception, and offers many new lines of enquiry with regards to developmental brain plasticity and visual expertise in autistics.”