Overfocusing: A Possible Extension of the Broad Autism Phenotype

Thursday, May 17, 2012
Sheraton Hall (Sheraton Centre Toronto)
1:00 PM
R. Allen and M. Kinsbourne, Psychology , The New School for Social Research , New York , NY

Existing literature provides support for the broad autism phenotype (BAP), the sub-clinical expressions of autistic characteristics in first-degree relatives of individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).  Key features of the BAP have been identified as social deficits, communication difficulties, and rigid personality.  These features are congruent with the diagnostic criteria for autism.  It has been proposed that hyperarousal may underlie these symptoms and call for compensatory overfocusing or shunning sensation by means of inflexible, perseverative and internalized attention. Overfocusing was found in 75% of a sample of 222 children with ASD (Liss, Saulnier, Fein, & Kinsbourne, 2006). 


To determine the prevalence of overfocused attention in ASD parents, as an as yet unidentified component of the BAP. 


Thirty mothers of children with ASD completed the Kinsbourne Overfocusing Scale as a self-report and as an informant-based measure for the child’s biological father.  The mothers also completed the Broad Autism Phenotype Questionnaire (BAPQ; Hurley et al. 2007), short versions of the Empathy Quotient and Systemizing Quotient (EQ-S & SQ-S; Wakabayashi et al., 2006), demographic information, and a parent-report measure of the severity level of the child’s ASD symptoms overall, and in the domains of social deficits, communication deficits, and restricted/repetitive behavior.


Forty percent of the mothers exceeded cut-off scores according to the BAPQ self-report criteria. 45% met the criterion for overfocusing.  Overfocusing scores were highly correlated with the BAPQ total (r=.77, p=.01), and with the BAPQ subscales, most notably with rigid personality (r=.67, p=01).  According to the mothers’ report, an even higher 67% (n=14) of ASD fathers met criteria for overfocusing.  The overfocusing scores of fathers, reported by mothers, were correlated with the overall severity level of their children’s ASD (r=.50, p=.05), and highly correlated with the level of their children’s severity on the repetitive and restricted patterns of interest subscale (r=.66, p=.01).  

The mothers’ overfocusing self-ratings and the children’s level of severity were not significantly correlated. Yet mother and father overfocusing scores combined accounted for significantly more variance (37%) than the fathers’ overfocusing score alone (25%). 

The mothers’ EQ-S and SQ-S mean scores were within the normative range.  However, the mothers’ scores on EQ-S were negatively correlated with their BAPQ Total scores (r=-.64) and the BAPQ Aloof subscale scores (r=-.57). 


The degree of overfocused attention of ASD parents exceeded population norms and correlated significantly with the rated severity level of the children’s autistic symptoms. These preliminary findings suggest that overfocusing is prominent among symptoms of the broad autism phenotype. If confirmed, these findings will place overfocused attention not only among core attributes of autistic behavior (Liss et al., 2006) but also of its subclinical expression in parents of autistic children.

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