Visual attention is often hypothesized to play a causal role in the development of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Because attention shapes perception, learning, and social interaction, early deficits in attention could substantially affect the development of other perceptual and cognitive abilities. Here we test two key attentional phenomena thought to be disrupted in autism: attentional disengagement and social orienting. We find in a free-viewing paradigm that both phenomena are present in high-functioning children with ASD (n = 44, ages 5-12 years) and are identical in magnitude to those in age- and IQ-matched typical children (n = 40). Although these attentional processes may malfunction in other circumstances, our data indicate that high-functioning children with ASD do not suffer from across-the-board disruptions of either attentional disengagement or social orienting. Combined with mounting evidence that other attentional abilities are largely intact, it seems increasingly unlikely that disruptions of core attentional abilities lie at the root of ASD.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This study was supported by funds from the Ellison Medical Foundation awarded to N. Kanwisher, by a grant from the Simons Foundation to the Simons Center for the Social Brain at MIT, and by Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Award F32-HD075427 to J. Fischer.
- Eye tracking
- Face perception
- Free viewing
- Social attention
- Social orienting