Autistic Brain Excels at Recognizing Patterns

Brain regions associated with recognizing patterns tend to light up more in autistic people than the general population, perhaps explaining why those with autism often excel at visual tasks, a new study finds.

The brain regions in question are called the temporal and occipital areas, and are associated with perception and recognition of patterns.

A new review of multiple studies determined that people with an autism spectrum disorder tend to have more brain activity in these regions, and less brain activity in frontal brain regions associated with planning and decision-making.

The studies provide evidence that people with autism tend to perform strongly on visual tasks , said researcher Laurent Mottron of the Centre for Excellence in Pervasive Development Disorders at the University of Montreal.

The studies show that people with autism "have larger visual activity, something that's already known at a behavioral level to some extent," Mottron said during a press conference.

Researchers analyzed 26 brain imaging studies that included 357 people with autism and 370 people without autism. In all imaging studies, regardless of the research design or task presented to the study participants, the temporal and occipital brain regions had increased brain activity compared with non-autistic people, the review said.

"It means that the autistic brain is reorganized, but it's not reorganized in a disorganized way," Mottron said. "It's reorganized in the sense of favoring visual expertise."

The studies focused on people with less severe autism. Autism spectrum disorders affect about 1 percent of children ages 3 to 17, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism hinders people's ability to sense social cues and interact normally with others.

The study results show that in order to improve symptoms of people with autism, "we have to do it in their way" by building on the natural properties of their brains, Mottron said.

For example, many people with autism have hyperlexia, which is characterized by above-average abilities in reading and decoding language, but poor abilities in reading comprehension. Instead of using punishment or reinforcement to teach people with hyperlexia, it would be better to teach them by introducing letters as families of patterns so they can better understand written materials, Mottron said.

The new research was published today (April 4) in the journal Human Brain Mapping.

Pass it on: People with autism tend to be good at visual tasks, and that is exemplified with brain scans that show increased brain activity in regions associated with perception and pattern recognition.

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Amanda Chan
Amanda Chan was a staff writer for Live Science Health. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and mass communication from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, and a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.