The tendency to engage with faces can be seen from approximately 9 minutes old in typical development (Goren Sarty and Wu, 1975) and this is thought to underlie face processing and social expertise observed in typical adults (Johnson and Morton, 1991). People with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD's) however, have been shown to have deficits in orienting towards social information, compared to typically developing controls (i.e. Dawson et al, 1998, 2004).
This study sought to utilise a methodology not previously applied to an ASD sample to test the proposition that people with ASD's, unlike typically developing controls, fail to orient preferentially to social stimuli in the form of faces.
The Visual-Dot-Probe (Mathews, MacLeod and Tata, 1986) was utilised to examine attentional biases for face stimuli. Two images (a face and a non-face stimulus) were presented in the top and bottom halves of a computer screen for 200ms. Participants were asked to respond to the presentation of a probe which appeared in the same spatial location as one of the previously presented pictures. Reaction times were taken as a measure of attentional allocation (reaction times are shorter if the dot replaces the picture the participant was attending to).
This study found that the control group showed faster reaction times to probes which appeared in the spatial location previously occupied by a face than locations previously occupied by non-face stimuli; This was not the case for the ASD participants who showed no bias towards either class of stimuli.
These findings suggest that adults with ASD's do not spontaneously allocate attention to face stimuli as typical controls do. Within the framework of Johnson and Morton's (1991) CONSPEC-CONLERN model this may relate to the broader social deficits observed in autism.