International Meeting for Autism Research: Cognitive Control in ASD: Methods to Explain Inconsistencies in Earlier Findings

Cognitive Control in ASD: Methods to Explain Inconsistencies in Earlier Findings

Thursday, May 20, 2010
Franklin Hall B Level 4 (Philadelphia Marriott Downtown)
2:00 PM
H. M. Geurts , Psychonomics, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Background: Both researchers and clinicians acknowledge that individuals with ASD often encounter difficulties in adapting their behavior to a changing environment. These challenges are hard to assess and understand with our current neuropsychological toolkit, and findings in ASD  often are inconsistent. Therefore, it was recently argued that (1) more mechanistic tasks (i.e. tasks that are known to involve specific brain regions and neural circuits) should be applied; and (2) both top down and bottom up processes should be taken into account when assessing cognitive control.
Objectives: To give examples of how mechanistic tasks can explain inconsistencies in former research by determining when and why individuals with ASD struggle with cognitive control.
Methods: We will present a literature overview of recent studies focusing on mechanistic cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control tasks. We will then focus on our own study of the intersection between emotion and cognitive control.  In this specific study we focused on how emotion (bottom up) and cognitive control (top down) interact.  We used a  Go/NoGo paradigm, with socially relevant stimuli and varying presentation rates (fast and slow), with  18 children with ASD and 22 TD children (aged 8 to 13 years).
Results: There were no overall inhibition deficits in children with ASD; however, when processing emotional stimuli, children with ASD performed worse than TD children in the slow presentation rate condition. These results suggest that rather than possessing a core deficit in inhibitory control, children with ASD may exhibit low arousal levels in response to social stimuli.
Conclusions: By focusing on specific cognitive control mechanisms such as cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control, we can disentangle which processes are deficient and which are intact. This approach may be more fruitful than just focusing on a general construct such as executive functioning. Furthermore, an additional bottom up factor --arousal level --was revealed as important.
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