How Does Visual Attention to Social and Non-Social Information Influence Learning and Memory for Autistic Children?
Autism Spectrum Disorder has been characterized as associated with atypical attention and memory (Ames and Fletcher-Watson, 2010; Boucher et al., 2012), in particular in social contexts (Chita-Tegmark, 2016; Guillon et al., 2014). Previous studies that have explored these cognitive signatures have focused on either attention or memory, with the majority of studies focusing on attention alone. As a result, little is known about how attention and memory interact in ASD. For example, how does attention influence learning and memory? Furthermore, how does social (or conversely, non-social) information in one’s environment shape this relationship?
The objectives of the study were to:
(1) examine how autistic children attend to, learn, and remember information in social and non-social contexts, using behavioural and eye-tracking measures, and (2) explore how individual differences (e.g. social functioning and anxiety) influence attention and memory.
Thirty-one children with and without autism (Ages = 5-17; Mage = 11.67 years; N = 62) completed a visual search and memory task, including scenes containing social or non-social information. First, in the learning phase, participants searched for target objects embedded in social or non-social scenes. Second, in the memory phase, they recalled the locations of the targets by placing them in the remembered locations within the same scenes. Both behavioural and eye gaze measures were recorded throughout the task. Parents completed the Social Responsiveness Scale – 2, and Spence Child Anxiety Scale, as respective measures of social functioning and anxiety.
Search time and memory precision measures showed that both children with and without autism learned and remembered information equally well in social and non-social contexts. In both learning and memory phases, eye-tracking revealed that all children gave significantly more attentional priority to and engaged more with the social than non-social information. Further, improvements in search time speed were significantly related to better memory precision in social scenes only (r(59) = -.43, p =.001). Individual differences in social functioning and anxiety moderated these effects in autistic children. Specifically, levels of social functioning (r(24) = .42, p =.043) and anxiety (r(24)= .45, p = .027) were positively related to the duration of looking to the social information in the memory phase.
Contrary to expectations, results indicate that children with and without autism show similar attentional and memory profiles in social and non-social contexts. Combining eye-gaze and behavioural data, we suggest that social information may be used by children, both with and without autism, to aid learning and memory. Critically, individual differences measures suggest that autistic children experiencing more anxiety and social difficulties may be more hypervigilant to social information. We suggest that this hypervigilance may be useful in guiding memory (Doherty et al., 2017). These results shed novel insights into the interaction of attention, learning, and memory in children with and without autism, and provide a framework for understanding how social information may be used to facilitate these processes.