Study Confirms Enhanced Visual Abilities for Individuals with Autism


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Researchers lead by Laurent Mottron at the University of Montreal have confirmed scientifically what has been an anecdotal truth – people with autism enjoy unrivaled visual expertise. On a neurological level, they concentrate more brain resources in the areas associated with visual detection and identification and less in the areas used to plan and control thoughts and actions.

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

This effort to draw conclusions across various studies enabled scientists to observe that “autistics exhibit more activity in the temporal and occipital regions and less activity in 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”.

The brain of the individual with autism expresses a general functional reorganization that favors perception processes — the very processes by which information is recorded in the brain. In essence, the autistic brain successfully adapts for its deficits by reallocating brain areas to visual perception, accounting for visual prowess. 

Whatever the task, the autistic brain strongly engages the visual system. Unlike their neurotypical counterparts, individuals with autism can conduct higher level cognitive tasks without having to engage the frontal lobe of their brain. 

This study represents the first physiological confirmation that enhanced perceptual processing is a core strength of people on the autism spectrum. The findings have implications for the plasticity of the brain and offer new models for investigating autism.

What leaps to mind for me from these conclusions is that there needs to be an educational revolution in order to tap into the strengths of children with autism. Current practices favor neurotypical children and even penalize the child with autism for their disorder.

A point of contention for me in the public schools are tests, including those that are standardized, that make the child show their work. Autism expert Dr. Tony Attwood has long held this to be discriminatory as children on the spectrum perceive math problems visually and cannot record their problem solving methods like their frontal lobe engaging peers do. My son’s scores in math have never reflected his true ability because he is constantly marked down for not showing his work, regardless of getting the correct answer. 

Having large classrooms with strict rules of conduct is naturally an ordeal for children with autism who are unequipped neurologically to plan and control their actions. They end up getting in trouble a lot for their inability to filter their responses and manage a social regimen, which only exacerbates their condition.

Most curriculum is lecture-based and devoid of that visual element that brings information to life and guarantees retention for a child on the spectrum. I previously posted about the Khan Academy, a free online learning resource. Since then, my science-shy son has been reveling in their chemistry videos, constantly remarking that he loves the illustrations that accompany the lectures. Bill Gates envisions schools where small clusters of children work independently at the Khan Academy, with the teacher available as a coach. This seems well-suited to the learning style of the child with autism. The sterile and ubiquitous math worksheets could be rendered obsolete.

I hope this study on the strengths of the autistic brain will spur educational reforms that shift the focus away from trying to “normalize” the child with autism and instead encourages their special gifts to flourish. 

The findings of the study appear at http://humanbrainmapping.org/ 

4 Responses to Study Confirms Enhanced Visual Abilities for Individuals with Autism

  1. Laura says:

    Bill Gates would know, as many suspect him to be on the spectrum himself.
    Of course, not all of us are visual thinkers. I did terribly in geometry because it was TOO visual. This theory does hold up well for calculating savants such as my own special interest Daniel Tammet.

  2. Susan says:

    Laura, I think the study is saying that all autistic brains are fundamentally visually oriented. That said, I’m sure the way and the degree to which that manifests varies with the individual.

    I’m going to look up Daniel Tammet now. Thanks for writing…Susan Moffitt

  3. Kylyssa Shay says:

    I always had the “show your work” problem. One teacher accused me of cheating! I asked her, “From whom did I cheat?” To which she replied, “I don’t know but somehow you did.” This happened over twenty years ago, back when the only possible methods of getting hold of tests ahead of time would have required breaking and entering so it was a nasty, nasty accusation. I tried to teach her how to work equations the way I did but she didn’t care to pay attention. I saw no reason to fake pages and pages of work that I didn’t actually use to come to a correct answer so I failed her class. To me, I was the only normal person in a room full of slow people who needed to do pages of finger counting and ritualistic doodling to solve problems that could be solved simply by looking at them with the right frame of mind.

    In my opinion, the sentence “Having large classrooms with strict rules of conduct is naturally an ordeal for children with autism who are unequipped neurologically to plan and control their actions.” could stop at the word “children” because, it rather looks as if the old system isn’t working great for any children, on the spectrum or not.

  4. Susan says:

    Thanks for your comments. What a drag about flunking math. Until very recently our state’s standardized tests made kids show their work. They only switched to multiple choice because it’s cheaper to grade.

    You’re right about that sentence, kids on the spectrum are just like everyone else only more so.

    Susan Moffitt

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