Visual Mental Representations in Adults with Autism

November 15, 2021

Study Demonstrates That “Thinking in Pictures” is a Real Phenomenon 

Recent research from France has investigated the use of visual mental representation, sometimes described as “thinking in pictures,” in adults with autism. The study’s authors also explored how this phenomenon applies to real life situations. To conduct this study, a total of 39 adults on the spectrum and 80 control adults were recruited. Each subject participated in an online questionnaire on visual mental representations. An example of one of the questions included in this research was, “What comes to mind when hearing the name of a well-known city?” After the questionnaires were processed, the results confirmed the research team’s original hypothesis. Their findings showed that adults with autism reported more frequent and extended use of visual mental representations for different types of common life situations (recollection, problem solving, anticipation, decision making, planning, comprehension and memorization) compared to the study’s control group. The authors suggest that a possible explanation for this greater use of visual representations is that the cognition of those on the spectrum rely more on an enhanced visual, perceptual functioning. They believe there could be a link between this particular sensory/perceptual functioning in autism and the use of visual strategies. The team also discovered that the use of visual mental imagery can be accompanied by a lower use of words/verbal representations in the autism group than in the controls. Interestingly, the study reported that the participants on the spectrum were more likely than the control group to define their mental images as detailed. In the end, the researchers called attention to the variability of responses they observed across the autism group. While most of the group reported a predominance of visual mental representations, several participants on the spectrum reported a limited use of visual mental representations in everyday life circumstances. They believe this variability will be important to study in the future. 

Original Study

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