People with autism do not interact socially in the same way that people without autism do. Cognitive and verbal impediments that accompany autism often make interactions with other people very challenging for autistic individuals. This barrier can make research on autism difficult to conduct. To overcome this obstacle, Jennifer L. Stevenson of the Department of Psychology at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania recently led an internet-based study involving 72 individuals with autism and 72 without. The goal of her study was to determine if spatial perception, a process suggested to be enhanced in individuals with autism, differed significantly between the two groups, and also to see how spatial abilities were related to verbal and numerical skills in the participants.
Spatial perception in those with autism is often recognized as the ability to locate hidden items in visual cues. In other words, when hidden items or figures are embedded in visual displays, individuals with autism can locate them easier than nonautistic individuals. In her study, Stevenson examined whether this was true across verbal and numerical domains and whether or not there were significant gender differences. Her results support previous research wherein the participants with autism were more significantly superior at finding the embedded figures in spatial tasks than the nonautistic individuals. However, when she looked at the results of the verbal and numerical tests, she found very little difference between the nonautistic participants and those with autism.
With respect to gender, Stevenson’s findings again support existing research that shows verbal strengths in females and numerical and spatial strengths in the males, with and without autism. Stevenson believes her results contradict some findings that are based on in person examinations. Using the internet may provide individuals with autism with the opportunity to respond without the anxiety or fear they may experience when being examined in person. This mode of testing could allow for enhanced communication and a more accurate snapshot of cognitive abilities. Stevenson added, “The current study’s success supports the use of the Internet as a research medium for investigating other cognitive domains.”
Stevenson, J.L., and Gernsbacher, M.A. (2013). Abstract spatial reasoning as an autistic strength. PLoS ONE 8(3): e59329. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059329
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