Individuals with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) have been found to show differences in their attention to social and non-social information compared to typically developing controls. For example, people with ASC show reduced attention to social information such as faces; display an attentional preference for mechanical over social items; and spend less time looking at faces in natural scenes. There is also evidence these differences in attention are seen across the broader autism spectrum, and so may be evident in a subclinical population of individuals with a high degree of autism traits. ASC are frequently found to be comorbid with social anxiety, which could impact upon the allocation of attentional resources to social information given the well-established link between anxiety and attentional biases.
The current study looked at the relationship between traits of autism and social anxiety in a subclinical population. It further investigated whether differences in attention to social and mechanical objects were found in relation to high and low levels of autism and social anxiety traits.
Ninety four participants (mean age = 28; 47 males and 47 females) were administered the Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ) as a measure of autism traits, and the Leibowitz social anxiety scale (LSAS) to index social anxiety. Participants were grouped via median splits across their total AQ and LSAS scores into Low AQ Low SAS, Low AQ High SAS, High AQ Low SAS, and High AQ High SAS. They also completed a dot probe task, which used images of faces or cars presented simultaneously with a neutral object (houses) for 200 or 500ms. The dependent measure for the experiment was Attention Bias scores towards faces and cars.
A significant positive correlation was found between autism traits and social anxiety, r = .47, p < .001. Furthermore, a Group x Stimulus x Time interaction was found with Attention Bias scores (p < .05), and post-hoc tests indicated that individuals with high levels of both autism traits and social anxiety showed a diminished attentional bias towards faces compared to the other 3 groups when stimuli were presented for 200ms. No group differences in Attentional Bias scores were found for cars.
Results show that the combination of high autism traits together with higher social anxiety was associated with reduced attention to faces, an effect not seen with those having high autism traits along with low social anxiety. These findings suggest social anxiety might play a key role in the attention biases to social and non-social information seen in ASC.
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