Reduced Behavioral Flexibility in Autism Spectrum Disorders

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Objective: Restricted and repetitive behaviors, and a pronounced preference for behavioral and environmental consistency, are distinctive characteristics of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Whether these clinical features of ASD are related to fundamental neuropsychological impairments in behavioral flexibility remains to be clarified. Method: Forty-one individuals with ASD and 37 matched controls performed a probabilistic reversal learning task to assess behavioral flexibility. Participants learned to choose the correct stimulus location from a pair of locations to win points (acquisition). After making the correct choice over multiple trials, the rewarded stimulus location changed without warning (reversal). Feedback was provided on an 80:20 probabilistic schedule, with 80% of correct choices and 20% of incorrect choices randomly reinforced. Results: ASD and control participants performed comparably during acquisition. At reversal, ASD participants initially chose the new correct location as quickly as controls, but then more frequently reverted back to the previously preferred response. The ASD group also more frequently shifted back to the previous response choice immediately following intermittent non-reinforcement of the new correct response. The number of regressive errors was positively correlated with independently ascertained clinical ratings of restricted and repetitive behaviors, but not other core features of ASD. Conclusions: Restricted and repetitive behaviors in ASD are associated with neurocognitive deficits in flexible choice behavior. Preclinical research has established that frontostriatal circuitry supports flexibility on reversal learning tasks. Thus, alterations in this circuitry may contribute to behavioral rigidity in ASD and represent a target for therapeutic intervention.

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