Objectives: The main focus of this study was to examine the neural bases of visuospatial processing (an area of strength), and social cognition (an area of difficulty) in conjunction in children with autism.
Methods: The stimuli consisted of a series of stick figure characters, made of several geometrical shapes, depicting certain actions. While the participants judged the emotional state of the character in one experimental condition (emotion), they detected the presence of a target geometrical shape in the figure in the other condition (feature). Four high-functioning children (age range: 10-15 years) with autism, and two typical control participants took part in this fMRI study (data collection is in progress). The fMRI data collected from the Siemens 3.0T Allegra scanner at the UAB Civitan International Research Center was analyzed using SPM8.
Results: The preliminary analysis of the functional MRI data revealed a trend in which the participants with autism seem to recruit the same set of regions in both tasks. However, the control participants recruited regions associated with action and emotion processing (the amygdala, left insula, and the orbitofrontal cortex) in the emotion task relative to the feature task. The participants with autism recruited similar areas, most of them associated with visuospatial processing (e.g., superior parietal lobule) in both experimental tasks.
Conclusions: The absence of a difference in activation in participants with autism between the emotion and feature tasks may suggest the use of a common strategy for accomplishing both visuospatial and emotion processing. Control participants, on the other hand, seem to have a different pattern of recruitment for these tasks. Overall, these preliminary findings suggest a difference in the neural route through which children with autism accomplish reading emotions from body postures.