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The MMFA announces results of a promising study on perception of works of art by people with autism

Participating in an art workshop appears to influence the way people on the autism spectrum perceive a work of art. This was the finding of a study conducted at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) by neurobiologist Bruno Wicker.

The aim of the research project, which was launched in September 2017, was to explore the cognitive and emotional mechanisms that come into play in the perception of works of art – in this case, paintings – in people with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome and in neurotypical people. The study’s participants took part in visits to observe and share ideas on works in the Museum’s collection, as well as in art workshops.

The study found that the two abovementioned groups looked at works very differently. While neurotypical people have a very similar way of looking at a painting (focusing on figurative and social elements, such as a face, for example), researcher Bruno Wicker observed highly variable centres of interest among participants with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These results underscore the fact that people with ASD have a different way of perceiving information in an artistic context.

Even more interesting, the analyses showed significant changes in looking behaviour among people with ASD before and after they participated in the observation and creative workshops at the Museum. The findings suggest that the workshop influenced their perception of works of art. This could be the result of integrating information learned beforehand in the workshops that influence the processing of perceptual information (top-down processes).