International Meeting for Autism Research: Change-Blindness: Lack of Typical Salience for Social Information in Autism Spectrum Conditions

Change-Blindness: Lack of Typical Salience for Social Information in Autism Spectrum Conditions

Thursday, May 20, 2010
Franklin Hall B Level 4 (Philadelphia Marriott Downtown)
1:00 PM
C. Ashwin , Department of Psychology, University of Bath, Bath, United Kingdom
A. Woolgar , Medical Research Council: Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge, United Kingdom
S. Baron-Cohen , Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Background: Autism spectrum conditions (ASC) are characterized by social and communicative difficulties alongside repetitive and restricted behavior. Some have proposed that social information is less salient than in typical controls. In line with this, people with ASC look less at faces and are less likely to use social information for inferring mental states about others. However, there has been a lack of experimental testing of whether social information captures the attention of people with ASC or not. One experimental method for investigating the focus of people’s attention is the change blindness paradigm, where people have to spot a single change that is present between two otherwise identical displays. A visual disruption occurs each time the scenes alternate, making it very difficult to spot the change unless attention is focused on the location of the change within the display. By including social and non-social information within displays, change blindness paradigms can be used to investigate whether social information is particularly salient to typical control participants, and is less salient to those with ASC.

Objectives: To use two different social change blindness paradigms to test whether there are differences in the allocation of attention to social and mechanical items in people with ASC compared to controls.

Methods: We tested 20 adult males with ASC, along with 20 age, IQ, and sex matched control males and 20 matched control females on two different social change blindness paradigms. One of the tasks used scenes of everyday life with changes to either social or mechanical items within the scenes. The other task used individual pictures arranged in a matrix, to test attention to social and mechanical items with a more featural type of processing which may be easier for those with ASC.

Results: Overall, participants detected changes to social items faster than mechanical items. However, people with ASC were slower than controls to detect changes to social items, an effect that was found across both social change blindness tasks. No differences were found between the ASC and control groups in time to detect changes in the mechanical items. These findings were not due to a general difficulty by the ASC group in doing the tasks, as no significant main effects of group were found for either task.

Conclusions: Social information is normally very salient and tends to capture attention. However, social information is less salient to those with ASC, and so is less likely to be within the focus of their attention. These findings have implications for the development of social cognition in ASC.

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