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People with autism concentrate more brain resources in the areas associated with visual detection and identification and therefore show less activity in the areas used to plan and control thoughts and actions. This might explain why people with autism tend to have outstanding capacities in visual tasks.

These are the findings of new research directed by Dr Laurent Mottron at the University of Montreal's Centre for Excellence in Pervasive Development Disorders. The project, which set out to understand why autistic individuals have strong abilities in terms of processing visual information, collated data from 26 independent brain imaging studies spanning fifteen years. The studies, which examined the ways autistic brains work when interpreting faces, objects and written words, looked at a total of 357 autistic and 370 non-autistic individuals.

Fabienne Samson, the study’s lead author, explains that comparative analysis of the data reveals that those with autism exhibit “more activity in the temporal and occipital regions of the brain”, the areas typically involved in perceiving and recognizing patterns and objects, and “less activity in the frontal cortex”, associated with higher cognitive functions such as decision making, cognitive control and planning, than those without the condition.

This study claims to show that the autistic brain can successfully adapt by reallocating brain areas to visual perception. “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”, says Dr Mottron. “We now have a very strong statement about autism functioning which may be ground for cognitive accounts of autistic perception, learning, memory and reasoning.”

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