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Assessment of visual mental imagery abilities in autism

  • Bled, Clara
  • Guillon, Quentin
  • Mottron, Laurent
  • Soulières, Isabelle
  • Bouvet, Lucie
Publication Date
Jan 19, 2024
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Autistic individuals have an atypical role, performance and autonomy in perceptual functioning, including significant visuospatial abilities. As mental imagery and perception share common underlying mechanisms, the question of the mental imagery abilities of autistic individuals thus arises. While enhanced mental imagery capacities have been demonstrated in autism, with significant abilities to manipulate mental images, the other stages of mental imagery (generation, maintenance, inspection) remain to be explored in autism.Forty-four autistic adults and 42 typical participants performed 4 tasks to assess different stages of mental imagery: the Image generation task (mentally generating a letter on a grid and indicating whether it passes over a probe located in the grid), the Visual pattern test (maintaining visual patterns in memory), the Image scanning test (inspecting mental images) and the Mental rotation test (mentally manipulating representations of geometric figures). Autistic and typical individuals were equivalent in the generation and the manipulation of mental images, both in accuracy and response time. Visual span on the Visual pattern test was significantly higher in the autistic group, indicating better maintenance of mental images. As for the inspection of mental images, response times were influenced by the distance to inspect in the typical group but not in the autistic group. Autistic participants were equally fast regardless of distance.The preserved, greater or differently influenced visual mental imagery abilities that we found in this study confirm the atypical perceptual functioning in autism. These atypicalities in mental imagery processing can be linked with a bias towards a more local processing of information and a lesser top-down effect (weaker influence of knowledge).

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