Brief Report: Circumscribed Attention in Young Children with Autism

School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, University of Texas at Dallas, GR41 800 West Campbell Road, Richardson, TX 75080, USA.
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (Impact Factor: 3.06). 05/2010; 41(2):242-7. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-010-1038-3
Source: PubMed
ABSTRACT
School-aged children and adolescents with autism demonstrate circumscribed attentional patterns to nonsocial aspects of complex visual arrays (Sasson et al. 2008). The current study downward extended these findings to a sample of 2-5 year-olds with autism and 2-5 year-old typically developing children. Eye-tracking was used to quantify discrete aspects of visual attention to picture arrays containing combinations of social pictures, pictures of objects frequently involved in circumscribed interests in persons with autism (e.g., trains), and pictures of more commonplace objects (e.g., clothing). The children with autism exhibited greater exploration and perseverative attention on objects related to circumscribed interests than did typically developing children. Results suggest that circumscribed attention may be an early emerging characteristic of autism.

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Available from: Gabriel Dichter, Jan 13, 2014
BRIEF REPORT
Brief Report: Circumscribed Attention in Young Children
with Autism
Noah J. Sasson
Jed T. Elison
Lauren M. Turner-Brown
Gabriel S. Dichter
James W. Bodfish
Ó Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010
Abstract School-aged children and adolescents with
autism demonstrate circumscribed attentional patterns to
nonsocial aspects of complex visual arrays (Sasson et al.
2008). The current study downward extended these find-
ings to a sample of 2–5 year-olds with autism and
2–5 year-old typically developing children. Eye-tracking
was used to quantify discrete aspects of visual attention to
picture arrays containing combinations of social pictures,
pictures of objects frequently involved in circumscribed
interests in persons with autism (e.g., trains), and pictures
of more commonplace objects (e.g., clothing). The children
with autism exhibited greater exploration and perseverative
attention on objects related to circumscribed interests than
did typically developing children. Results suggest that
circumscribed attention may be an early emerging char-
acteristic of autism.
Keywords Autism Attention Visual exploration
Toddlers Perseveration
Atypical exploration of objects may be a specific
behavioral marker of the autism phenotype in infancy
(Morgan et al. 2008; Watt et al. 2008). This restricted and
repetitive repertoire of exploratory behaviors may share
cognitive mechanisms with the repetitive behaviors char-
acteristic of autism in older children. Circumscribed
interests are a factor within the repetitive behaviors domain
and are orthogonal to social-communication deficits and
cognitive functioning (Lam et al. 2008). We recently
designed a passive viewing visual exploration task to
quantify the effect of circumscribed interests on patterns of
visual attention (Sasson et al. 2008). School-aged children
N. J. Sasson (&)
School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, University of Texas at
Dallas, GR41 800 West Campbell Road, Richardson, TX 75080,
USA
e-mail: nsasson@utdallas.edu
J. T. Elison L. M. Turner-Brown G. S. Dichter
J. W. Bodfish
Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, CB# 3366,
101 Manning Drive, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7160, USA
J. T. Elison
Department of Psychology, University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill School of Arts and Sciences, CB# 3270, Chapel Hill,
NC 27599-3270, USA
G. S. Dichter J. W. Bodfish
Department of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, CB# 7160, Chapel Hill,
NC 27599-7160, USA
G. S. Dichter
Duke-UNC Brain Imaging and Analysis Center, Duke University
Medical Center, Durham, NC 27710, USA
G. S. Dichter
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Duke
University Medical Center, Box 3026, Durham, NC 27710, USA
J. W. Bodfish
Center for Development and Learning, University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill, CB # 7255, Chapel Hill,
NC 27599-7255, USA
123
J Autism Dev Disord
DOI 10.1007/s10803-010-1038-3
Page 1
with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) demonstrated
reduced exploratory behavior, increased perseverative
attention, and a more detail-oriented perceptual profile on
this task, though these effects were driven primarily by the
disproportionate restriction of attention to objects of ‘High
Autism Interest’ (HAI) that are frequent targets of cir-
cumscribed interests (South et al. 2005). In the absence of
HAI objects, visual attention patterns did not differ
between children with and without ASD, suggesting a
critical role played by circumscribed interests in the
restriction of visual attention.
Given that a substantial proportion of toddlers and pre-
schoolers exhibit intense interests (DeLoache et al. 2007),
it is unclear whether circumscribed interests manifest dif-
ferently in young children with autism. The current study
sought to determine whether 2–5 year olds with autism
would demonstrate similar patterns of circumscribed
attention found in older children with ASD using the same
visual exploration task (Sasson et al. 2008). We hypothe-
sized that the visual exploration task would elucidate cir-
cumscribed attentional patterns in a group of young
children with autism similar to those elicited from school-
aged children with autism, namely through the dispropor-
tionate visual exploration and perseveration of HAI
objects.
Methods
Participants
The participants included two groups of young children: 10
with diagnoses of autism (AUT) and 14 who were typically
developing (TYP). After one AUT and one TYP child were
excluded from analyses due to missing and low quality data
derived from inaccurate eye tracking calibrations, the
final sample consisted of 9 children with AUT (8 males,
1 female; mean age, 43.2 months (SD, 9.2), range,
32–56 months) and 13 TYP children (12 males, 1 female,
mean age, 40.2 (SD, 14.3), range, 25–59 months). The
AUT and TYP groups did not differ statistically in sex or
chronological age. None of the participants had a seizure
disorder, an acute medical or genetic condition, or any
visual impairment uncorrectable with eyeglasses. The
University of North Carolina (UNC) Autism Research
Registry in conjunction with regional TEACCH (Treat-
ment and Education of Autistic and related Communica-
tion-handicapped CHildren) clinics served as the
recruitment sources for the children with autism. Each
child in the AUT group had a DSM-IV diagnosis of
Autistic Disorder made by a licensed clinician experienced
in the assessment and diagnosis of autism. As per TEA-
CCH protocols, if a clinical diagnosis was questioned,
diagnosis was confirmed with the Autism Diagnostic
Observation Schedule (ADOS; Lord et al. 2000), which
occurred in three cases in the present sample.
Children in the TYP group were recruited via an email
sent to UNC faculty and staff. TYP children did not have a
history of any psychiatric condition or developmental dis-
order as assessed through an unstructured interview, were
not taking psychotropic medication, and did not have an
immediate family member with ASD.
The UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine Biomedical
Institutional Review Board approved the protocol for this
study, and the legal guardians of each participating child
gave informed written consent before the study began.
Procedure
Visual Exploration Task
The visual exploration task consisted of 12 static arrays
with 24 color images each. Half of the arrays were
‘social ? object arrays’ (i.e., they contained pictures of
people with clearly visible faces along with pictures of
objects), and half were ‘object only arrays’ (i.e., they
contained object pictures only). Half of all object pictures
were ‘High Autism Interest’ (HAI). These objects were
selected from nine categories which previous research has
shown to be frequent targets of circumscribed interests in
individuals with autism: trains, vehicles, planes, blocks,
home electronics, computer equipment, road signs, and
sporting equipment (South et al. 2005). The other half of
object pictures were ‘Low Autism Interest’ (LAI) and
selected from nine categories that have not been reported to
be of common circumscribed interest in autism: clothing,
food, furniture, plants, school supplies, bathroom supplies,
gloves, hats, and bags. The proportion of social, HAI and
LAI images within each array was counterbalanced to
create different levels of competition for visual attention
across social and nonsocial images. For more detail con-
cerning the construction of the task, please see Sasson et al.
(2008).
Testing Conditions
All testing was conducted at UNC-Chapel Hill. Participants
sat approximately 60 cm from a Tobii 1750 eye tracking
system (Tobii Technology, Stockholm, Sweden). The eye
tracking equipment is integrated within a 17 display (visual
angle, *32°) set at a resolution of 1,152 9 864 pixels with
a sampling frequency of 50 Hz. The equipment does not
interfere with task administration and allows for head
motion within a cubic range of 30 9 15 9 20 cm.
A brief (*15 s) calibration procedure was administered
before the task began. The participant was then instructed
J Autism Dev Disord
123
Page 2
to view the forthcoming pictures. Arrays were presented
one at a time for 10 s each in one of three pseudorandom
orders. A centrally presented crosshair appeared between
arrays to reorient the participant and ensure that all visual
patterns began at the same point for each array. No array
contained an image at this center location.
Data Reduction and Statistical Analysis
Fixation analysis served as the basis for examining eye
tracking patterns. Consistent with Sasson et al. (2008),
fixations were defined as gaze remaining within a radius of
30 pixels (visual angle, *0.80°) for a minimum of 100 ms,
a threshold that matches (e.g., Merin et al. 2007) or exceeds
(e.g., Dalton et al. 2005) many other investigations of
autism using eye tracking. Three discrete aspects of visual
attention comprised the outcome measures: (a) exploration
(the number of different images on which a fixation was
recorded) (b) perseveration (the total fixation time per
image explored) and (c) detail-orientation (the number of
discrete fixations per image explored). These variables
were selected for their relevance to attentional and per-
ceptual characteristics of the autism phenotype and were
intended to be conceptually distinct.
Separate repeated measures ANOVAs for the social ?
object arrays and the object only arrays on each primary
variable were conducted to determine whether patterns of
visual attention differed between groups for different types
of stimuli. For the social ? object arrays, object type (HAI
vs. LAI) and item type (social vs. object) were the within-
group variables and group (AUT vs. TYP) was the
between-group variable. For the object only arrays, object
type (HAI vs. LAI) was the within-group variable and
group (AUT vs. TYP) was the between group variable.
The groups did not differ in amount of missing data (i.e.,
eye blinks and gaze time off the display) (F (1, 20) \ .01,
ns). Missing data also not differ by array type (F (1,
20) = .49, ns), nor was there a Group x Array Type
Table 1 Visual attention on
social ? object arrays
Abbreviations: AUT Autism,
TYP Typically Developing, HAI
High Autism Interest, LAI Low
Autism Interest
Variable AUT Mean (SD) TYP Mean (SD)
Social arrays w/HAI
Exploration
Social images explored 7.22 (3.49) 8.38 (4.50)
HAI images explored 10.78 (4.21) 10.15 (4.25)
Perseveration
Fixation time per social image explored (ms) 384 (165) 544 (321)
Fixation time per HAI image explored (ms) 658 (191) 524 (331)
Detail-orientation
Fixations per social image explored 1.56 (.41) 2.02 (.92)
Fixations per HAI image explored 2.20 (.54) 1.80 (.62)
Social arrays w/LAI
Exploration
Social images explored 10.44 (4.39) 11.54 (5.61)
LAI images explored 9.56 (3.43) 9.85 (4.49)
Perseveration
Fixation time per social image explored (ms) 398 (147) 458 (176)
Fixation time per LAI image explored (ms) 506 (178) 475 (233)
Detail-Orientation
Fixations per social image explored 1.71 (.40) 1.75 (.52)
Fixations per LAI image explored 1.80 (.46) 1.79 (.56)
Social arrays total
Exploration
Social images explored 17.67 (6.80) 19.92 (9.26)
Object images explored 20.33 (6.96) 20.00 (7.93)
Perseveration
Fixation time per social image explored (ms) 405 (113) 497 (176)
Fixation time per object image explored (ms) 585 (178) 495 (228)
Detail-Orientation
Fixations per social image explored 1.67 (.29) 1.85 (.41)
Fixations per object image explored 2.01 (.47) 1.79 (53)
J Autism Dev Disord
123
Page 3
interaction (F (1, 20) = .33, ns). However, to control for
individual differences in missing data, exploration was
analyzed as a ratio of on screen gaze time (i.e., the number
images fixated per second on screen). Calculations of
perseveration and detail-orientation were not affected by
on screen gaze time.
Results
Examination of the three outcome variables confirmed that
they were largely independent, though perhaps related in
interesting ways. While perseveration and detail-orienta-
tion were significantly correlated (r = .52, p = .01), cor-
relations were not significant between exploration and
perseveration (r =-.18), and between exploration and
detail-orientation (r =-.35). Shapiro–Wilk W tests
indicated that each outcome variable was normally dis-
tributed (exploration, W = 0.98, = .95; perseveration,
W = .94, p = .16; detail-orientation, W = .95, p = .29)
with levels of skew and kurtosis in the normal range.
Means and standard deviations for the AUT and TYP
groups on exploration, perseveration and detail-orientation
can be found for the social ? object arrays in Table 1 and
for the object only arrays in Table 2.
Exploration
The AUT and TYP groups did not differ in visual explo-
ration (i.e., the number of different images viewed) across
all images on the social ? object arrays (F (1, 20) = .04,
p = .85, g
p
2
< .01). A significant interaction emerged
between object type and item type (F (1, 20) = 8.96,
p \.01, g
p
2
= .31). Post hoc analysis determined that par-
ticipants explored fewer social images when the alternative
was HAI compared to LAI objects (t (21) = 4.87, p \ .01).
On the object only arrays, a significant interaction occurred
between group and object type (F (1, 20) = 7.63, p = .01,
g
p
2
= .28; see Fig. 1). Follow up analyses indicated that
this interaction was driven by the AUT children exploring
significantly more HAI than LAI images (t (8) = 4.31,
p \ .01), while TYP children did not differ in their
exploration of the two object types (t (12) = .76, p = .46).
Perseveration
On the social ? object arrays, a significant interaction
emerged between group and item type (F (1, 20) = 4.39,
p \ .05, g
p
2
= .18). Follow up analyses indicated that,
while ASD children perseverated significantly more on
object items relative to social items (t (8) = 4.56, p \ .01),
Table 2 Visual attention on
object only arrays
Abbreviations: AUT Autism,
TYP Typically Developing, HAI
High Autism Interest, LAI Low
Autism Interest
Variable AUT Mean (SD) TYP Mean (SD)
HAI images
Exploration
HAI images explored 21.67 (7.66) 18.84 (8.91)
Perseveration
Fixation time per HAI image explored (ms) 646 (253) 534 (207)
Detail-Orientation
Fixations per HAI image explored 2.33 (.55) 2.08 (.63)
LAI images
Exploration
LAI images explored 11.67 (6.48) 16.92 (7.30)
Perseveration
Fixation time per LAI image explored (ms) 370 (104) 480 (185)
Detail-Orientation
Fixations per LAI image explored 1.53 (.32) 1.72 (.39)
HAI and LAI images (combined)
Exploration
All images explored 33.33 (12.06) 35.77 (14.87)
Perseveration
Fixation time per image explored (ms) 549 (192) 509 (156)
Detail-Orientation
Fixations per image explored 2.07 (.49) 1.91 (.36)
J Autism Dev Disord
123
Page 4
TYP children did not differ in their perseveration on the
two item types (t (12) = .03, p = .98). On object only
arrays, a significant interaction occurred between group
and object type (F (1, 20) = 4.81, p \ .05, g
p
2
= .19; see
Fig. 1). Follow up analyses determined that AUT children
perseverated HAI objects significantly more than LAI
objects (t (8) = 4.03, p \ .01), while TYP children did not
differ in their perseveration on the two item types
(t (12) = .77, p = .46).
Detail-orientation
No significant main effects or interactions were found on
the social ? object arrays. On the object-only arrays, a
main effect of object type emerged indicating that across
both groups HAI objects were inspected in a more detail-
oriented fashion than LAI objects (F (1, 20) = 15.07,
p \ .01, g
p
2
= .43). The Group 9 Object Type interaction
approached but did not reach significance (see Fig. 1).
Discussion
This report demonstrates the feasibility of evaluating cir-
cumscribed attentional patterns in young children with
autism using a passive viewing visual exploration task. By
disaggregating attentional performance into exploration,
perseveration, and detail-oriented processes that are oper-
ationally identical to those observed in school-aged chil-
dren (Sasson et al. 2008), the current study provides
evidence of heightened visual attention to high-autism
interest (HAI) objects in 2–5 year olds with autism, and
suggests that these stimuli may be disproportionately sali-
ent to young children with autism relative to their typically
developing peers. Viewed in context of results using the
same task with older children (Sasson et al. 2008), these
findings suggest that 1. Age may be associated with an
increase in the flexible allocation of attention, and 2.
Restricted attentional patterns to objects of circumscribed
interest may characterize ASD from a very young age.
The presence of circumscribed attentional patterns spe-
cifically related to HAI objects in young children with
autism supplements data showing atypical motor move-
ments and abnormal object exploration in infants and
toddlers who go onto receive an autism diagnosis (Morgan
et al. 2008; Ozonoff et al. 2008; Watt et al. 2008). Taken
together, this evidence suggests that the early expression of
repetitive behaviors may be phenomenologically similar to
the variety of repetitive behaviors present in school-aged
children and adults with autism (Bodfish et al. 2000), and
posits that abnormal fixation, exploration and manipulation
of object stimuli may be a distinctive characteristic of the
early autism phenotype.
Additionally, attention biases to nonsocial aspects of the
environment may have downstream effects on the devel-
opment of social information processing. Flexibly attend-
ing to salient aspects of the environment supports
experience-dependent learning during times of complex
brain development, particularly during the first 3 years of
life. Abnormalities in the distribution of attention, such as
biases toward nonsocial information, may affect the
development of neural specialization (Johnson 2000),
including neural circuitry supporting abilities related to
social information processing (Sasson 2006; Schultz 2005).
Future research is needed to examine whether abnormali-
ties in the allocation and prioritization of visual attention
during early development directly relate to the emergence
of phenotypic social impairments in ASD. Alternatively,
attenuated social salience from very early life may prompt
increased object fixation. Deconstructing the directionality
Fig. 1 Group 9 object type interactions on object only arrays.
Abbreviations: AUT Autism, TYP Typically Developing, HAI High
Autism Interest, LAI Low Autism Interest
J Autism Dev Disord
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Page 5
of these interacting mechanisms will be critical for
understanding the etiology of social information processing
abnormalities in autism.
This study has several limitations. Challenges relating to
recruitment in this age range resulted in a smaller sample
size of children relative to similar studies (Sasson et al.
2008). Nevertheless, the sample was sufficient for gener-
ating adequate power to detect strong group differences in
visual attention patterns, though a larger sample may have
enabled the detection of more sensitive differences. The
lack of standardized diagnostic characterization in some of
the children with ASD should also be considered when
interpreting results reported here. Interpretation of visual
attention patterns may have benefited from the inclusion of
clinical measures of repetitive behaviors and circumscribed
interests. Finally, although a similar pattern of heightened
attention to HAI objects was found in older children with
ASD even after controlling for I.Q. (Sasson et al. 2008), the
lack of cognitive evaluation of the current sample is
noteworthy. These limitations notwithstanding, the current
study offers a quantitative measure of circumscribed
attention in young children with autism that may prove
useful for examining early risk and developmental factors
related to the disorder.
Acknowledgments This research was supported by R01
MH073402 (Bodfish). L.M. Turner-Brown was supported by NICHD
T32-HD40127. G Dichter was supported by K23 MH081285. Assis-
tance for this study was provided by Kristin S. L. Lam, Tia Holtzclaw,
and the Subject Registry Core of the UNC Neurodevelopmental
Disorders Research Center (P30 HD03110).
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    • "Images related to CIs in ASD, referred to as High Autism Interest (HAI) images, were derived as follows: first a large number of potential nonsocial images was selected based on response profiles from semi-structured parent-report interviews about CIs in ASD (e.g., machines, mechanical systems, trains and electronic devices ) (South et al. 2005; Turner-Brown et al. 2011). Next, the visual salience of these images was evaluated via passive-viewing visual exploration eyetracking studies of children and adults with and without ASD (Sasson et al. 2011; Sasson et al. 2008). These eyetracking studies identified 40 images without social content that garnered relatively greater visual attention (i.e., greater number of fixations and greater duration of fixations) in ASD samples. "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Prosaccade and antisaccade errors in the context of social and nonsocial stimuli were investigated in youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD; n = 19) a matched control sample (n = 19), and a small sample of youth with obsessive compulsive disorder (n = 9). Groups did not differ in error rates in the prosaccade condition for any stimulus category. In the antisaccade condition, the ASD group demonstrated more errors than the control group for nonsocial stimuli related to circumscribed interests, but not for other nonsocial stimuli or for social stimuli. Additionally, antisaccade error rates were predictive of core ASD symptom severity. Results indicate that the cognitive control of visual attention in ASD is impaired specifically in the context of nonsocial stimuli related to circumscribed interests.
    No preview · Article · May 2016 · Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders
  • Source
    • "Yet another possibility is that individuals with ASD simply look more at non-social stimuli because these happen to be more salient, and as Amso et al. (2014) have shown, individuals with ASD rely more on bottom-up attentional strategies, Chawarska et al., 2013 Riby & Hancock, 2009Author's personal copy in which attention allocation is driven by visually salient aspects of the scene. Another thing to note is that a number of studies suggest that individuals with ASD do not attend indiscriminately to non-social stimuli but that they show increased attention to objects specific to circumscribed interests (Sasson and Touchstone 2014; Sasson et al. 2008 Sasson et al. , 2011 ). In fact, individuals with ASD attend less to some non-social stimuli such as landscapes (Anderson et al. 2006). "
    Full-text · Article · Apr 2016
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    • "In infants later diagnosed with ASD, decreased visual attention to social scenes is evident by six months of age [6] , while in the same developmental window attention to non-social objects is enhanced [17] . This preference for looking at objects is sustained throughout early childhood [48, 49, 51]. Thus, differential visual salience of environmental (versus conventionally social) stimuli may result in atypical focus on these stimuli, leading to differently appropriated visual expertise, and in turn predisposing the FFA to respond preferentially to these stimuli in ASD. "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Background: While autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by both social communication deficits and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interest, literature examining possible neural bases of the latter class of symptoms is limited. The fusiform face area (FFA) is a region in the ventral temporal cortex that not only shows preferential responsiveness to faces but also responds to non-face objects of visual expertise. Because restricted interests in ASD are accompanied by high levels of visual expertise, the objective of this study was to determine the extent to which this region responds to images related to restricted interests in individuals with ASD, compared to individuals without ASD who have a strong hobby or interest. Methods: Children and adolescents with and without ASD with hobbies or interests that consumed a pre-determined minimum amount of time were identified, and the intensity, frequency, and degree of interference of these interests were quantified. Each participant underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while viewing images related to their personal restricted interests (in the ASD group) or strong interest or hobby (in the comparison group). A generalized linear model was used to compare the intensity and spatial extent of fusiform gyrus response between groups, controlling for the appearance of faces in the stimuli. Results: Images related to interests and expertise elicited response in FFA in both ASD and typically developing individuals, but this response was more robust in ASD. Conclusions: These findings add neurobiological support to behavioral observations that restricted interests are associated with enhanced visual expertise in ASD, above and beyond what would be expected for simply a strong interest. Further, the results suggest that brain regions associated with social functioning may not be inherently less responsive in ASD, but rather may be recruited by different environmental stimuli. This study contributes to our understanding of the neural basis of restricted interests in ASD and may provide clues toward developing novel interventions.
    Full-text · Article · Apr 2016 · Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders
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