The scope of social attention deficits in autism: Prioritized orienting to people and animals in static natural scenes

Yale University, Department of Psychology, USA.
Neuropsychologia (Impact Factor: 3.3). 09/2009; 48(1):51-9. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2009.08.008
Source: PubMed


A central feature of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is an impairment in 'social attention'--the prioritized processing of socially relevant information, e.g. the eyes and face. Socially relevant stimuli are also preferentially attended in a broader categorical sense, however: observers orient preferentially to people and animals (compared to inanimate objects) in complex natural scenes. To measure the scope of social attention deficits in autism, observers viewed alternating versions of a natural scene on each trial, and had to 'spot the difference' between them--where the difference involved either an animate or inanimate object. Change detection performance was measured as an index of attentional prioritization. Individuals with ASD showed the same prioritized social attention for animate categories as did control participants. This could not be explained by lower level visual factors, since the effects disappeared when using blurred or inverted images. These results suggest that social attention - and its impairment in autism - may not be a unitary phenomenon: impairments in visual processing of specific social cues may occur despite intact categorical prioritization of social agents.

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    • "We therefore constructed a three-layered saliency model with a principled vocabulary of pixel-, object-, and semantic-level attributes , quantified for all the features present in 700 different natural images (Xu et al., 2014). Furthermore, unlike previous work that focused on one or a few object categories with fixed prior hypotheses (Benson et al., 2009; Freeth et al., 2010; New et al., 2010; Santos et al., 2012), we used a data-driven approach free of assumptions that capitalized on using machine learning to provide an unbiased comparison among subject groups. "
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    ABSTRACT: Summary The social difficulties that are a hallmark of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are thought to arise, at least in part, from atypical attention toward stimuli and their features. To investigate this hypothesis comprehensively, we characterized 700 complex natural scene images with a novel three-layered saliency model that incorporated pixel-level (e.g., contrast), object-level (e.g., shape), and semantic-level attributes (e.g., faces) on 5,551 annotated objects. Compared with matched controls, people with ASD had a stronger image center bias regardless of object distribution, reduced saliency for faces and for locations indicated by social gaze, and yet a general increase in pixel-level saliency at the expense of semantic-level saliency. These results were further corroborated by direct analysis of fixation characteristics and investigation of feature interactions. Our results for the first time quantify atypical visual attention in ASD across multiple levels and categories of objects.
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