Spatial navigation impairments among intellectually high-functioning adults with autism spectrum disorder: Exploring relations with theory of mind, episodic memory, and episodic future thinking

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Abstract

Research suggests that spatial navigation relies on the same neural network as episodic memory, episodic future thinking, and theory of mind (ToM). Such findings have stimulated theories (e.g., the scene construction and self-projection hypotheses) concerning possible common underlying cognitive capacities. Consistent with such theories, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by concurrent impairments in episodic memory, episodic future thinking, and ToM. However, it is currently unclear whether spatial navigation is also impaired. Hence, ASD provides a test case for the scene construction and self-projection theories. The study of spatial navigation in ASD also provides a test of the extreme male brain theory of ASD, which predicts intact or superior navigation (purportedly a systemizing skill) performance among individuals with ASD. Thus, the aim of the current study was to establish whether spatial navigation in ASD is impaired, intact, or superior. Twenty-seven intellectually high-functioning adults with ASD and 28 sex-, age-, and IQ-matched neurotypical comparison adults completed the memory island virtual navigation task. Tests of episodic memory, episodic future thinking, and ToM were also completed. Participants with ASD showed significantly diminished performance on the memory island task, and performance was positively related to ToM and episodic memory, but not episodic future thinking. These results suggest that (contra the extreme male brain theory) individuals with ASD have impaired survey-based navigation skills-that is, difficulties generating cognitive maps of the environment-and adds weight to the idea that scene construction/self-projection are impaired in ASD. The theoretical and clinical implications of these results are discussed. ©2013 American Psychological Association.

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Lind, S. E., Williams, D. M., Raber, J., Peel, A., & Bowler, D. M. (2013). Spatial navigation impairments among intellectually high-functioning adults with autism spectrum disorder: Exploring relations with theory of mind, episodic memory, and episodic future thinking. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 122(4), 1189–1199. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0034819

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