Seeing the Unseen: Autism Involves Reduced Susceptibility to Inattentional Blindness

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Abstract

Objective:

Attention research in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has produced conflicting results. Some findings demonstrate greater distractibility while others suggest superior focused attention. Applying Lavie's load theory of attention to account for this discrepancy led us to hypothesize increased perceptual capacity in ASD. Preliminary support for our hypothesis has so far been found for adults with ASD with reaction time (RT) and signal detection sensitivity measures. Here we test the novel prediction we derived from this hypothesis that children with ASD should have lower rates of inattentional blindness than controls.

Method:

Twenty-four children with ASD (mean age = 10 years 10 months) and 39 typically developing children (age and IQ matched) took part in the study. We assessed the effects of perceptual load on the rates of inattentional blindness in each group. Participants performing a line discrimination task in either a high load or low load condition were presented with an unexpected extra stimulus on a critical trial. Performance on the line judgment task and rates of detection and stimulus identification were recorded.

Results:

Overall rates of detection and identification were higher in the ASD group than in the controls. Moreover, whereas both detection and identification rates were significantly lower in the high (compared with low) load conditions for the controls, these were unaffected by load in the ASD group.

Conclusion:

Reduced inattentional blindness rates under load in ASD suggests higher perceptual capacity is a core feature, present from childhood and leading to superior performance in various measures of perception and attention.

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