Eye-movements reveal attention to social information in autism spectrum disorder

Fletcher-Watson, S., Leekam, S.R., Benson, Valerie orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-0351-4563, Frank, M.C. and Findlay, J.M. (2009) Eye-movements reveal attention to social information in autism spectrum disorder. Neuropsychologia, 47 (1). pp. 248-257. ISSN 0028-3932

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Official URL: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2008.07...


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition in which children show reduced attention to social aspects of the environment. However in adults with ASD, evidence for social attentional deficits is equivocal. One problem is that many paradigms present social information in an unrealistic, isolated way. This study presented adults and adolescents, with and without ASD, with a complex social scene alongside another, non-social scene, and measured eye-movements during a 3-s viewing period. Analyses first identified viewing time to different regions and then investigated some more complex issues. These were: the location of the very first fixation in a trial (indicating attentional priority); the effect of a task instruction on scan paths; the extent to which gaze-following was evident; and the degree to which participants’ scan paths were influenced by the low-level properties of a scene. Results indicate a superficially normal attentional preference for social information in adults with ASD. However, more sensitive measures show that ASD does entail social attention problems across the lifespan, supporting accounts of the disorder which emphasise lifelong neurodevelopmental atypicalities. These subtle abnormalities may be sufficient to produce serious difficulties in real-life scenarios.

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