Autistic traits are associated with enhanced working memory capacity for abstract visual stimuli

Louise A. Brown Nicholls, Mary Elizabeth Stewart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
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We tested whether the association between autistic traits and enhanced performance in visual-perceptual tasks extends to visual working memory capacity. We predicted that any positive effect of autistic traits on visual working memory performance would be greatest during domain-specific tasks, in which visual resources must be relied upon. We used a visual ‘matrix’ task, involving recall of black-and-white chequered patterns which increased in size, to establish participants' capacity (span). We assessed 144 young adults' (M = 22.0 years, SD = 2.5) performance on abstract, ‘low semantic’ versus ‘high semantic’ task versions. The latter offered multimodal coding due to the availability of long-term memory resources that could supplement visual working memory. Participants also completed measures of autistic traits and trait anxiety. Autistic traits, especially Attention to Detail, Attention Switching, and Communication, positively predicted visual working memory capacity, specifically in the low semantic task, which relies on visual working memory resources. Autistic traits are therefore associated with enhanced processing and recall of visual information. The benefit is removed, however, when multimodal coding may be incorporated, emphasising the visual nature of the benefit. Strengths in focused attention to detail therefore appear to benefit domain-specific visual working memory task performance.
Original languageEnglish
Article number103905
JournalActa Psychologica
Early online date20 Apr 2023
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2023


  • Autism
  • Autistic traits
  • Visual cognition
  • Visual processing
  • Visual short-term memory
  • Working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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