International Meeting for Autism Research: Individuals with Autism Demonstrate Circumscribed Attention During Passing Viewing of Competing Social and Non-Social Stimuli

Individuals with Autism Demonstrate Circumscribed Attention During Passing Viewing of Competing Social and Non-Social Stimuli

Friday, May 21, 2010
Franklin Hall B Level 4 (Philadelphia Marriott Downtown)
11:00 AM
G. Dichter , Psychiatry, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC
A. Sabatino , Psychology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
N. Sasson , School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, TX
J. W. Bodfish , Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Background: Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are characterized by abnormalities in the processing of social information that contribute to impairments in social functioning.  While reductions in social attention have often been conceptualized as resulting from decreased salience of social information, they may also emerge as the result of competing salience of other non-social features in the environment.  Previous research has demonstrated that children with autism disproportionately explore and perseverate attention on object types commonly associated with circumscribed interests (Sasson, et al. 2008). 

Objectives: We developed a passive viewing task to measure whether the presence of such object types would differentially affect attention to social stimuli in adults with and without ASD. 

Methods: Participants with and without ASD completed a paired preference task.  Task stimuli included 40 image pairs of social (i.e., neutral Nimstim faces) and non-social images (i.e.,  “High Autism Interest” (HAI) objects derived from Sasson et al., 2008.  Gaze behavior was quantified using eye-tracking technology. To date, we have assessed 15 typically developing individuals [mean age in years= 24.10 ± 3.58] and 4 individuals with Autism [mean age in years= 24.69 ± 12.18].

Results: Preliminary analyses on onscreen fixation time indicated a significant Group by Stimulus type (i.e. object or face) interaction (F (1, 17) = 6.01, p = .025, η2= .26).  While the control group spent 52% of all onscreen fixation time on faces and just 37% on objects, the ASD group displayed the opposite pattern, spending 49% on objects and only 37% on faces. One way ANOVA results on the 8 categories of objects indicated that the two groups differ significantly on trains (F(1, 17) = 6.07, p = .025) and planes (F (1, 17) = 9.74, p = .006), with the ASD group spending nearly 30% more of their fixation time on these objects compared to the control group. Data collection is ongoing, and with the larger ASD sample expected by next spring, we plan to pursue more detailed eye tracking analyses, as well as examine whether attention patterns are associated with repetitive behaviors and restricted interests as measured by the Interview for Repetitive Behaviors and Repetitive Behavior Scale.

Conclusions: Individuals with ASD appear to attend atypically to competing social and non-social information.  These processing patterns may reflect a tendency for individuals with ASD to perseverate on objects of high interest rather than concurrently presented social stimuli.  Assessment of visual attention may thus be used to quantify discrete aspects of the repetitive behavior phenotype in autism, including the modulating effect of circumscribed interests on social attention.