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Keywords:

  • autism;
  • functional MRI;
  • visuospatial processing;
  • mental rotation;
  • functional connectivity

Atypical visuospatial processing is commonly described in autism spectrum disorders (ASDs); however the specific neurobiological underpinnings of this phenomenon are poorly understood. Given the extensive evidence suggesting ASDs are characterized by abnormal neural connectivity, this study aimed to investigate network connectivity during visuospatial processing in ASD. Twenty-two males with ASD without intellectual disability and 22 individually matched controls performed a mental rotation task during functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in which two rotated stimuli were judged to be same (“Same Trials”) or mirror-imaged (“Mirror Trials”). Behavioral results revealed a relative advantage of mental rotation in the ASD group—controls were slower responding to the more difficult Mirror Trials than Same Trials whereas the ASD group completed Mirror Trials and Same-trials at similar speeds. In the ASD group, brain activity was reduced in frontal, temporal, occipital, striatal, and cerebellar regions and, consistent with previous literature, functional connectivity between a number of brain regions was reduced. However, some connections appeared to be conserved and were recruited in a qualitatively different way by the two groups. As task difficulty increased (on Mirror Trials), controls tended to increase connections between certain brain regions, whereas the ASD group appeared to suppress connections between these regions. There was an interesting exception to this pattern in the visual cortex, a finding that may suggest an advantage in early visual perceptual processing in ASD. Overall, this study has identified a relative advantage in mental rotation in ASD that is associated with aberrant neural connectivity and that may stem from enhanced visual perceptual processing. Autism Res 2012, 5: 314–330. © 2012 International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.