Spatial navigation, episodic memory, episodic future thinking, and theory of mind in children with autism spectrum disorder: evidence for impairments in mental simulation?

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Lind, Sophie E. ; Bowler, Dermot M. ; Raber, Jacob (2014)
  • Publisher: Frontiers Media S.A.
  • Journal: Frontiers in Psychology, volume 5 (issn: 1664-1078, eissn: 1664-1078)
  • Related identifiers: doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01411, pmc: PMC4256988
  • Subject: episodic memory | scene construction | episodic future thinking | BF | Psychology | theory of mind | spatial navigation | self-projection | Original Research Article | mental simulation | autism spectrum disorder

This study explored spatial navigation alongside several other cognitive abilities that are thought to share common underlying neurocognitive mechanisms (e.g., the capacity for self-projection, scene construction, or mental simulation), and which we hypothesized may be impaired in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Twenty intellectually high-functioning children with ASD (with a mean age of ~8 years) were compared to 20 sex, age, IQ, and language ability matched typically developing children on a series of tasks to assess spatial navigation, episodic memory, episodic future thinking (also known as episodic foresight or prospection), theory of mind (ToM), relational memory, and central coherence. This is the first study to explore these abilities concurrently within the same sample. Spatial navigation was assessed using the “memory island” task, which involves finding objects within a realistic, computer simulated, three-dimensional environment. Episodic memory and episodic future thinking were assessed using a past and future event description task. ToM was assessed using the “animations” task, in which children were asked to describe the interactions between two animated triangles. Relational memory was assessed using a recognition task involving memory for items (line drawings), patterned backgrounds, or combinations of items and backgrounds. Central coherence was assessed by exploring differences in performance across segmented and unsegmented versions of block design. Children with ASD were found to show impairments in spatial navigation, episodic memory, episodic future thinking, and central coherence, but not ToM or relational memory. Among children with ASD, spatial navigation was found to be significantly negatively related to the number of repetitive behaviors. In other words, children who showed more repetitive behaviors showed poorer spatial navigation. The theoretical and practical implications of the results are discussed.
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