A few of my favorite things: Circumscribed interests in autism are not accompanied by increased attentional salience on a personalised selective attention task

Owen E. Parsons, Andrew P. Bayliss, Anna Remington

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8 Citations (Scopus)
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Abstract

Background
Autistic individuals commonly show circumscribed or “special” interests: areas of obsessive interest in a specific category. The present study investigated what impact these interests have on attention, an aspect of autistic cognition often reported as altered. In neurotypical individuals, interest and expertise have been shown to result in an automatic attentional priority for related items. Here, we examine whether this change in salience is also seen in autism.

Methods: Adolescents and young adults with and without autism performed a personalized selective attention task assessing the level of attentional priority afforded to images related to the participant’s specific interests. In addition, participants performed a similar task with generic images in order to isolate any effects of interest and expertise. Crucially, all autistic and non-autistic individuals recruited for this study held a strong passion or interest. As such, any differences in attention could not be solely attributed to differing prevalence of interests in the two groups. In both tasks, participants were asked to perform a central target-detection task while ignoring irrelevant distractors (related or unrelated to their interests). The level of distractor interference under various task conditions was taken as an indication of attentional priority.

Results: Neurotypical individuals showed the predicted attentional priority for the circumscribed interest images but not generic items, reflecting the impact of their interest and expertise. Contrary to predictions, autistic individuals did not show this priority: processing the interest-related stimuli only when task demands were low. Attention to images unrelated to circumscribed interests was equivalent in the two groups.

Conclusions: These results suggest that despite autistic individuals holding an intense interest in a particular class of stimuli, there may be a reduced impact of this prior experience and expertise on attentional processing. The implications of this absence of automatic priority are discussed in terms of the behaviors associated with the condition.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20
JournalMolecular Autism
Volume8
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 12 Apr 2017

Keywords

  • Autism
  • circumscribed interests
  • special interests
  • attention
  • perception

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