Visuospatial processing in adults and children with autism
Carnegie Mellon University
Despite impaired function in social and language domains, individuals with high-functioning autism sometimes exhibit intact or superior performance on visuospatial tasks. For example, autistic subjects show a better ability than controls in the embedded figures task (EFT), in which they detect a target object that is part of a larger figure. This task requires suppression of global processing of the larger, embedding figure in order to locate the target object. Understanding the neural mechanisms behind this ability may be revealing about how the brains of people with autism process visual stimuli. This project will study the neural basis of the EFT abilities in high-functioning autism. Neural connectivity between different brain regions will be examined during the task, with the expectation that global connectivity will be diminished and local connectivity emphasized in autism, thus increasing performance on the task. The project will also extend this research to children with autism in order to investigate the development of visuospatial processing in this disorder. To accomplish these goals, Dr. Just's fellow will use a combination of techniques: behavioral methods to detect differences in task performance, functional imaging (fMRI) to locate brain activations during the task, and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to visualize the pathways that connect different brain regions. What this means for people with autism: Understanding how the brain processes visual stimuli in this task will reveal more about the way the brain is wired together in autism, especially with respect to long- vs. short-range connectivity. Knowing the neural mechanisms responsible for the behaviors seen in autism will allow more directed treatments to be designed.