Deficits in visual attention seem to play a role in the social difficulties that characterize autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Specifically, deficits in low-level attentional processes, such as the ability to disengage or shift attention, are proposed to underlie social deficits in ASD.

Joint attention deficits are one of the first sings of ASD. Previous studies showed that high-risk infants at the age of 14 months who received an ASD diagnosis at 3, responded less often to Joint attention bids involving eye gaze than typically developing (TD) children. These deficits lead to a cascade of developmental consequences across numerous domains, including theory of mind and language, above global characteristics such as IQ. Joint attention deficits in ASD continue into preschool, school age, and even adolescence.

The present study was designed to examine the impact of low-level attentional mechanisms on higher-order social functioning in children and adolescents with ASD. The results indicate that low-level visual attentional processes, particularly the ability to shift visual attention adaptively, map onto the social bases of attention and suggest that the executive basis of attention is also constrained by such low-level factors. Thus, these findings suggest that visual attention deficits in ASD impact social reciprocity.

According to the authors, interventions aimed at improving both attentional flexibility and evaluation of visual cues may cascade into improvements in social attention. These results have implications for social functioning: individuals with ASD appeared to be less engaged by visual information than their peers and less able to reallocate their attention after it was directed. Recent studies have reported that targeting joint attention in early childhood can produce long-lasting changes in developmental progress and mitigate core deficits in ASD. The authors believe that promoting engagement in visual cues, rather than encouraging rapid disengagement, may promote better joint attention. Limited research suggests that children with ASD can benefit from interventions and accommodations to support attention.

This study evaluated multiple facets of visual attention to probe the contribution of low-level attention mechanisms to social abilities. The results indicate that reduced engagement with visual information may limit the ability to make social use of important visual signals. Once their attention was engaged, participants with ASD were able to interpret the directional cues as meaningful; however, they may struggle to use this information to efficiently modify their behavioral response.

Modified from: Bean Jaworski JL, Eigsti IM (2015) Low-level visual attention and its relation to joint attention in autism spectrum disorder. Child Neuropsychology. DOI: 10.1080/09297049.2015.1104293