Directing Attention Based on Incidental Learning in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder

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Objective: Attention is a complex construct that taps into multiple mechanisms. One type of attention that is underinvestigated in autism is incidentally or implicitly guided attention. The purpose of this study is to characterize how children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) direct spatial attention based on incidental learning. Method: Children with high-functioning ASD and typically developing children engaged in a visual search task. For the first half of the study, over multiple trials, the target was more often found in some locations than other locations. For the second half, the target was equally likely to appear in all locations. We measured search performance for targets located in the high-probability and low-probability locations. Results: Children with ASD were able to direct spatial attention using incidentally learned information about the target's location probability. Although unaware of the experimental manipulation, children with ASD were faster and more efficient in finding a target in the high-probability locations than low-probability locations, and this bias dissipated after the target's location probability was even. The pace and magnitude of learning, as well as later adjustment to new statistics, were comparable between children with ASD and typically developing children. Conclusions: Incidentally learned attention is preserved in children with ASD.

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