Sunday, November 13, 2011

Autism: Visual Memory, Intelligence, and According Respect

Visual Memory and Intelligence: In a series of articles on cognitive functioning in autism, including his most recent Comment in the Nov. 3rd issue of Nature, Dr. Laurent Mottron has emphasized visual perception, and specifically visual pattern recognition and reaction time in autism compared with typical peers. People with autism often do best on subtests that involve no semantic content, i.e. no verbal meaning.  The Raven’s Progressive Mattrices test upon which he bases much of his argument, involves a series of fairly simple geometric shapes and their physical features and spatial orientations and arrangements. 

Some studies suggest that a subset of individuals with autism “solve” these problems by using visuospatial computational operations similar to a computer, and less so on problems requiring verbal reasoning (Kunda, McGreggor and Goel, 2010).  While verbally more capable people solve Raven’s Matrix Problems via verbal strategies, non-verbal people with autism obviously do not.  They rely on memory for spatial configurations.  This appears to be the same configuration memory strategy used in building complex jigsaw puzzles based on patterns of shapes.  The first child I met with autism over 35 years ago, though non-verbal and with very significant cognitive disability, was equally facile at building 500 piece jigsaw puzzles right side up or upside down, and showed no interest in, or recognition of the images created once the puzzle had been constructed.  The process seems to involve an ability to perform extremely complex configural visual memory tasks without any reference to their possible verbal meaning.  Indeed, an attempt to attach semantic meaning may actually detract from such task performance.

It is some stretch of the imagination to call this skill intelligence.  This ability is similar to those used by birds, especially migratory birds.  There is evidence that pigeons can memorize up to 725 different visual patterns such as might be encountered in a stream of such patterns while in migratory flight.  The visual patterns are extremely complex and often involve entirely irregular patterns with forested areas, lakes, farmland, streams, towns and so on, in entirely unpredictable patterns, constantly changing as the bird travels, sometimes up to 1,800 miles.  It appears that if some birds are blown off course, they fly circling backward until they reach a familiar visual pattern, and then resume migration.
Other data indicate that fine discriminations between various colors and achromatic patterns can be reliably detected in quails using the brainstem-thalamus complex, in other words, not even involving higher brain areas, such as the visual cortex.  Laboratory studies with pigeons indicate birds are capable of detecting letters (black figures against a white background) with amazing speed, and only exhibiting longer latencies when the correct target stimulus is very infrequent.  Response latencies are typically extremely short, under one second.  It doesn’t appear this ability has anything to do with intelligence.

In reviewing the evidence for “avian intelligence,” which is something of a misnomer, crows, ravens, jackaws, jays and magpies and parrots appear to be capable of more complex problem solving than other birds and in many cases even apes (Emery, 2006). They are even known to use tools.  Despite their extraordinary visual processing abilities, migratory birds generally do not possess these cognitive problem-solving abilities.

It is not my purpose at all to diminish the importance of unique cognitive abilities of many individuals with autism, but to suggest that the ability to perform complex visual configural search tasks with short latencies, as is involved in Mottron’s and his colleagues laboratory and clinical testing tasks, likely has a limited amount to do with what is usually meant by intelligence.  Intelligence is distinguished by ability to use abstract symbols for functional communication in attaching meaning to one’s experiences and in solving problems.  Most people with autism display such skills, some to extraordinary degrees.  Visual memory for configurations is not central to intelligence, though it is indeed a unique skill, very beneficial in the visual arts, as shown here with Stephen Wiltshire, and mathematics and computer science. 

Mottron in his Nature article posed the possibility people with autism are actually “superior” to other people in certain cognitive intellectual skills.  This is a very strange conclusion for a scientist to draw.  In conducting research, scientists don’t conclude that because one group scores higher or lower than another on some measure, that they are “superior” or “inferior.”  I doubt any scientist studying height would say men in Sweden are “superior” to men in India because on average they are taller.  “Superiority” is not within scientific lexicon.

Moreover, as I pointed out recently on my website, Autism Treatment, to suggest that any group of people must meet some measurable criterion on a test, like shorter latencies on a visual search task, in order to be accorded respect by the rest of society and our world community is inherently offensive. People with autism deserve equal treatment and rights as everyone else because they are members of the human family.  They do not need to prove themselves. “When you are content to be simply yourself and don't compare or compete, everybody will respect you,” Lao Tzu.

If people with autism have difficulties with employment, or socially succeeding in college, perhaps it has to do with social and communication challenges, not intelligence.  By working with experienced speech/language pathologists, psychologists, behavior analysts, vocational experts and social workers, most people with autism spectrum disorders can overcome these impediments to full participation.  Much as a medical student needs training to become a doctor or an architect needs training and practice to be an effective architect, some people on the autism spectrum profit from special training to master some complex social and communication skills required to be an effective teacher, a sales manager or physician. 


Emery, NJ. Cognitive ornithology: the evolution of avian intelligence. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. . 361:(1465) 23-43.

Kabai, P, and Kovach, JK (2010) Unconditional discrimination as a paradigm for investigating visual processing in the Avian brainstem. Acta Biol. Hung. 48 (1): 9-14

Mottron, L. (2001) The power of autism. Nature (Comment); 497: 33-35.

Bingman, VP and Able, KP (2002) Maps in birds: representational mechanisms and neural bases. Current Opinion in Neurobiology. 12: 745-750

Ritchison, G. (2011) Pigeons can memorize up to 725 different visual patterns. Personal Communication. Professor of Biological Sciences. Eastern Kentucky University

Soulie`res, I,  Michelle Dawson, M. and Mottron, L. (2009) Enhanced Visual Processing Contributes to Matrix Reasoning in Autism. Human Brain Mapping 30:4082–4107
Thompson, T. (2011) More Mischief: Autism Superiority? Autism Treatment,> Nov. 5. 2011.  Accessed Nov. 11, 2011

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