Prof’s Study Confirms Strength in Autistic Individuals

A study co-authored by Ursinus College Assistant Professor of Psychology Jennifer L. Stevenson finds that abstract spatial reasoning is an “absolute” strength of individuals on the autism spectrum. Stevenson, with co-author Morton Ann Gernsbacher, Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, published this research recently in the journal PLOS ONE.  The article is titled, “Abstract Spatial Reasoning as an Autistic Strength” (

The study confirms that abstract spatial processing “is a relative and perhaps absolute strength of autistic individuals.” The study notes that while it is known that autistic individuals typically excel on spatial tests that measure abstract reasoning, this study, unlike previous studies, is the first to vary the reasoning level – concrete vs. abstract, and test domain – spatial vs. numerical vs. verbal. The study by Stevenson and Gernsbacher varied reasoning level (concrete and abstract) and test domain (spatial, numerical, and verbal) using a battery of 12 tests to examine more systematically previous suggestions of a relative and absolute autistic strength on tests of abstract spatial reasoning. Autistic participants performed significantly better on abstract spatial tests than concrete spatial tests, suggesting spatial abstract reasoning is a relative autistic strength. Furthermore, autistic participants performed significantly better than non-autistic participants on abstract spatial tests, suggesting that spatial abstract reasoning is also an absolute autistic strength. Overall, the results suggest similarity in abilities between autistic and non-autistic individuals, with abstract spatial reasoning as an autistic strength.

Autistic participants’ superior performance on the abstract spatial tests used in this study rebuffs the assumption that their previously documented strengths on specific tests arise from rote memory or low-level concrete processing or that autistic individuals are impaired on tests that require abstract reasoning, the study concludes.

While the tests did not conclude from where the abstract spatial strength arise, the article notes that “very early in life autistic children are considerably more receptive to abstract spatial stimuli than are non-autistic children.”