Disengagement, Shifting and Engagement of Attention in Children And Adolescents With Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Mcmorris, Carly Anne
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The present study examined the disengaging, shifting, and engaging abilities of children and adolescents with ASD compared to age- and cognitive ability-matched typically developing (TD) peers. Previous research has found that individuals with 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 subsequently as an aid in the early identification of ASD. However, researchers to date have only examined endogenous and exogenous attention abilities, which pertain to when the cue to shift and disengage attention is externally provided. Given that this type of attention may not be representative of everyday attention situations, in the present study I investigated autogenous attention abilities, which relate to when the cue to shift and disengage is internally generated. Due to the implications of attention on later social and language development and repetitive behaviour, a richer understanding of attention abilities in children and adolescents with ASD is critical. Using a novel eye-tracking task, an aim of the present study was to determine whether sticky attention is a core deficit of ASD or whether it is task dependent by evaluating performance on two types of attention tasks: exogenous (attention that is externally cued) and autogenous (attention that is internally cued). Additionally, I examined how the type of stimuli, level of complexity of the stimuli, and participants engagement effect attention abilities. Lastly, I determined if demographic and clinical factors predict attention abilities in children with ASD and TD children. Overall, findings from the present study do not support previous research indicating inferior disengaging and shifting abilities in children with ASD, as attention abilities in the present study varied based on attention type, and other task-dependent variables, including trial type and task stimuli. Although only chronological age and verbal cognitive ability predicted performance, engagement in the trial was associated with attention abilities, regardless of group. Given the numerous variables that predicted disengaging and shifting abilities in children with ASD, the current study does not provide support for the hypothesis that sticky attention is a core deficit of ASD, and thus its potential as a diagnostic marker in this population is questionable.