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      Dysfunctional perceptual antecedent can justify the social orienting deficit in autism spectrum disorder: an eye-tracking study


      Advances in Autism

      Emerald Publishing

      Visual attention deficit, Shape stimuli, Autism, Complex stimuli, Deficit to social stimuli

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          Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) show reduced attention to social stimuli. The reasons for these impairments are still being debated by researchers. The aim of this study is to analyse if reduced attention towards social stimuli is determined by initial underlying difficulties in the control of visual attention. Among the variables that could produce these difficulties, the authors considered geometric complexity and typology of geometric figures.


          To test this hypothesis, in this paper, an eye-tracker paradigm was used for assessing visual exploration and recognition memory towards geometric figures (curved vs rectilinear) with two levels of geometric complexity (low and high) in 17 children with ASD matched with 17 children with typical development (TD).


          The results showed that the ASD group seemed indifferent to both the geometric complexity and the typology of figures (curved and rectilinear), whereas the TD group showed higher performances with highly complex and curved geometric figures than with low complex and rectilinear geometric figures.

          Research limitations/implications

          Because of the chosen research approach, the research results may lack generalizability. Therefore, researchers are encouraged to test the proposed hypotheses further.

          Practical implications

          This paper includes implications upon the presence of an unspecified visual attention deficit that is present from the early stages of the processing of stimuli.

          Social implications

          The understanding of this deficit from the early stages of the processing of stimuli can help educators to intervene at an early stage when disturbances in social relationships are starting.


          This study contributes to understanding the presence of dysfunctional perceptual antecedents that could determine general difficulties in paying attention to social stimuli in ASD subjects.

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          Most cited references 68

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          A multisite study of the clinical diagnosis of different autism spectrum disorders.

          Best-estimate clinical diagnoses of specific autism spectrum disorders (autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified, and Asperger syndrome) have been used as the diagnostic gold standard, even when information from standardized instruments is available. To determine whether the relationships between behavioral phenotypes and clinical diagnoses of different autism spectrum disorders vary across 12 university-based sites. Multisite observational study collecting clinical phenotype data (diagnostic, developmental, and demographic) for genetic research. Classification trees were used to identify characteristics that predicted diagnosis across and within sites. Participants were recruited through 12 university-based autism service providers into a genetic study of autism. A total of 2102 probands (1814 male probands) between 4 and 18 years of age (mean [SD] age, 8.93 [3.5] years) who met autism spectrum criteria on the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised and the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule and who had a clinical diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder. Best-estimate clinical diagnoses predicted by standardized scores from diagnostic, cognitive, and behavioral measures. Although distributions of scores on standardized measures were similar across sites, significant site differences emerged in best-estimate clinical diagnoses of specific autism spectrum disorders. Relationships between clinical diagnoses and standardized scores, particularly verbal IQ, language level, and core diagnostic features, varied across sites in weighting of information and cutoffs. Clinical distinctions among categorical diagnostic subtypes of autism spectrum disorders were not reliable even across sites with well-documented fidelity using standardized diagnostic instruments. Results support the move from existing subgroupings of autism spectrum disorders to dimensional descriptions of core features of social affect and fixated, repetitive behaviors, together with characteristics such as language level and cognitive function.
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            Impaired disengagement of attention in young children with autism.

            The present study examined the disengage and shift operations of visual attention in young children with autism. For this purpose, we used a simple visual orienting task that is thought to engage attention automatically. Once attention was first engaged on a central fixation stimulus, a second stimulus was presented on either side, either simultaneously or successively. Latency to begin an eye movement to the peripheral stimulus served as the main dependent measure. The two stimulus conditions (simultaneous and successive) provided independent measures of disengaging and shifting attention, respectively. Performance of children with autism was compared to that of children with Down syndrome and a normal group. The main finding was that relative to both comparison groups, children with autism had marked difficulty in disengaging attention. Indeed, on 20% of trials they remained fixated on the first of two competing stimuli for the entire 8-second trial duration. Evidence is also provided for a more subtle problem in executing rapid shifts of attention. Our findings on disengagement in autism parallel those reported in normal 2-month-olds, in whom attention has been described as 'obligatory'. Discussion focuses on the potential role of general versus domain-specific processes in producing some of the core features of autism.
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              Context modulates attention to social scenes in toddlers with autism.

              In typical development, the unfolding of social and communicative skills hinges upon the ability to allocate and sustain attention toward people, a skill present moments after birth. Deficits in social attention have been well documented in autism, though the underlying mechanisms are poorly understood. In order to parse the factors that are responsible for limited social attention in toddlers with autism, we manipulated the context in which a person appeared in their visual field with regard to the presence of salient social (child-directed speech and eye contact) and nonsocial (distractor toys) cues for attention. Participants included 13- to 25-month-old toddlers with autism (autism; n = 54), developmental delay (DD; n = 22), and typical development (TD; n = 48). Their visual responses were recorded with an eye-tracker. In conditions devoid of eye contact and speech, the distribution of attention between key features of the social scene in toddlers with autism was comparable to that in DD and TD controls. However, when explicit dyadic cues were introduced, toddlers with autism showed decreased attention to the entire scene and, when they looked at the scene, they spent less time looking at the speaker's face and monitoring her lip movements than the control groups. In toddlers with autism, decreased time spent exploring the entire scene was associated with increased symptom severity and lower nonverbal functioning; atypical language profiles were associated with decreased monitoring of the speaker's face and her mouth. While in certain contexts toddlers with autism attend to people and objects in a typical manner, they show decreased attentional response to dyadic cues for attention. Given that mechanisms supporting responsivity to dyadic cues are present shortly after birth and are highly consequential for development of social cognition and communication, these findings have important implications for the understanding of the underlying mechanisms of limited social monitoring and identifying pivotal targets for treatment. © 2012 The Authors. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry © 2012 Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health.

                Author and article information

                Advances in Autism
                Emerald Publishing
                12 August 2020
                03 December 2020
                : 6
                : 4
                : 289-302
                Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, University of Messina , and Institute for Biomedical Research and Innovation, National Research Council (NCR), Messina, Italy
                Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, Università degli Studi di Messina , Messina, Italy
                Author notes
                Rosa Angela Fabio can be contacted at:
                649875 AIA-03-2020-0015.pdf AIA-03-2020-0015
                © Emerald Publishing Limited
                Page count
                Figures: 3, Tables: 3, Equations: 0, References: 62, Pages: 1, Words: 7494
                research-article, Research paper
                cat-HSC, Health & social care
                cat-LID, Learning & intellectual disabilities
                Custom metadata
                Web-ready article package


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