Proactive Control as a Double-Edged Sword in Autism Spectrum Disorder

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Proactive control refers to the active representation of contextual information to bias cognitive processing and facilitate goal-directed behavior. Despite research suggesting that proactive control may be impaired in autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the associations between proactive control and clinical symptoms of ASD remain underspecified. Here, we combined a children’s version of the AX Continuous Performance Task (AX-CPT) with gold standard clinical assessments in children with ASD (N = 34) or typical development (TYP; N = 45). After controlling for full-scale IQ (FSIQ), measures of proactive control were similar between ASD and TYP. However, specifically within ASD we observed paradoxical relationships between proactive control and clinical symptoms. Increased reliance on proactive control was associated with reduced attention problems and increased restricted and repetitive behaviors in ASD. Therefore, proactive control appears to represent a double-edged sword in ASD: improved attentional control at the cost of heightened behavioral inflexibility. This represents a compelling and new characterization of the specific association between cognitive control processes isolated in computerized laboratory tasks and the multidimensional cognitive symptoms characteristic of ASD.

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