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Self-Projection in Autism Spectrum Disorders

Friday, 3 May 2013: 14:00-18:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
J. J. Finnemann1,2, M. Brun1, R. Benoit3 and S. J. White1, (1)Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, London, United Kingdom, (2)Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom, (3)MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge, United Kingdom

Recent research suggests that there is a core network of frontal, temporal and parietal regions that supports various forms of mental self-projection (Buckner & Carroll, 2007). These include prospection (a simulation of the future), retrospection (a projection of the self into the past), navigation (a mental projection into an alternative place) and mentalising (adoption of a different perspective). The fact that people with ASD are frequently reported to exhibit difficulties in all of those areas raises the question of whether the underlying causes could be found in the atypical functionality of the self-projection network.


The current study investigated the nature of two different forms of mental self-projection in ASD: prospection and mentalising. By virtue of investigating mentalising as well as prospective memory, we were also interested in exploring the possibility of bringing together several well-described aspects of the cognitive profile of ASD which previously have been accounted for within separate theoretical stances (i.e. the ‘theory of mind’ and ‘executive dysfunction’ accounts).


To test this hypothesis we invited a group of adults with ASD (N=30) and a control group of typically-developed adults (N=30) to perform a variety of tasks assessing ‘self’ and ‘other’ processing and prospection. The groups were matched for age, gender and verbal and performance IQ. Both groups filled in the AQ and all ASD participants were assessed on the ADOS. Furthermore all participants were also administered a battery of well-established theory of mind tasks and an adaptation of the Strange Stories Test.

The first experimental task was based on a test of self-reference using trait adjectives (Benoit et al., 2010), which was presented as a self/similar-other/dissimilar-other paradigm. In the first phase of the experiment, participants were asked to make personality trait judgments for themselves, their best friend and the Queen of England. Subsequently they were again prompted with adjectives descriptive of personality traits and had to decide whether they had seen them in the corresponding condition in the first phase.

The second task was a temporal discounting task (Mitchell et al., 1999) designed to elicit individual differences in the way the participants discounted future monetary rewards.


Whereas the control group replicated previous research suggesting superior performance for self-processing compared to tasks requiring a mental representation of a similar or dissimilar other, the ASD group showed a distinct impairment in the processing of a similar other. Furthermore the ASD group also exhibited a different pattern of performance on the temporal discounting task, with a tendency to be willing to wait longer for bigger rewards.


Taken together this suggests that the extent to which thinking about others and the personal future is modelled on the self varies as a function of perceived self-similarity and furthermore that this mechanism is atypically recruited by individuals with ASD. Thus impaired self-projection may prove to be a useful cognitive model of autism, uniting previously distinct theories and predicting a set of specific cognitive deficits.

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