‘Sticky’ Attention in Children and Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder: General Deficit or Task Dependent?

Friday, May 12, 2017: 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
C. A. McMorris1 and J. M. Bebko2, (1)Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada, (2)York University, Toronto, ON, CANADA
Background: Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have difficulty disengaging and shifting their attention or what has been termed ‘sticky’ attention. This ‘sticky’ attention has been hypothesized as a general deficit of the broader ASD phenotype, and can aid in early identification. Researchers to date have only examined endogenous and exogenous attention abilities, or when the cue to shift and disengage attention is externally provided. However, in everyday attention situations, decisions to disengage or shift are often generated internally, in the absence of external cues, such as when scanning a scene. This self-generated, “autogenous attention,” is a focus of the present study. Due to the implications of attention on later social and language development, a richer understanding of attention abilities in individuals with ASD is critical.

Objectives:  The primary objective was to evaluate whether disengagement and shifting abilities in children and adolescents with ASD are characterized by a general deficit. We did this by evaluating two different types of attention, exogenous and autogenous attention. How task stimuli impact attention was also studied, that is, whether the type of task, the content of stimuli, and the level of complexity of the stimuli impact participants’ attention abilities. Lastly, we explored how specific demographic characteristics and clinical variables, including cognitive level, were related to attention abilities of children with ASD and typically developing (TD) children.

Methods:  Two groups of children, ages 6 - 15 years, participated in the present study. The current samples included 20 TD children and 18 children with a diagnosis of ASD. The TD children were group-matched to children with ASD based on their chronological age and intellectual ability. The participants’ attention abilities were measured using a novel eye-tracking attention task, that determined autogenous and exogenous attention abilities. Task stimuli varied based on complexity (modality of the information, motion of the stimulus), and the degree of synchrony in the stimulus. Demographic and clinical variables were measured using a formal cognitive assessment and parent-report measures.

Results: Findings from multi-level modeling analyses indicate that participants with ASD took longer time to fixate, and had fewer fixations than TD children, suggesting that ‘sticky’ attention characterizes this population, but only in certain circumstances. In other conditions there was no evidence to support ‘stickiness’. A number of task-specific variables (e.g., attention type, trial type, stimuli type, and stimuli motion and synchrony) and participant-specific variables (chronological age and verbal cognitive ability) predicted performance on the attention task in both groups.

Conclusions: Overall, findings from the present study do not support previous research indicating inferior disengaging and shifting abilities in children with ASD, as attention abilities varied based on attention type and other task-dependent variables, including task stimuli. Thus, the current findings do not provide clear support for the hypothesis that ‘sticky’ attention is a general deficit in children with ASD. As a result, its potential as a diagnostic marker is questionable, or, at best, limited to very specific stimulus parameters.