• Experiments with ASD

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a class of neurodevelopmental conditions characterized by difficulties with communication and social interactions, as well as restricted or repetitive patterns of behavior. Although not considered in the core diagnostic criteria, attention problems are also common in ASD.

To investigate the nature of attention deficits, Poole and colleagues (2018, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General) tested adults with ASD and matched neurotypical controls in a task where they had to attend to a tactile stimulus (vibration in a hand-held device) while ignoring a task-irrelevant visual stimulus (LED light flashes). Participants had to lift their toes in response to a single tactile pulse and their heel in response to a double pulse.

Both groups made more errors when the visual stimulus was incongruent with the tactile vibration (e.g., single vibration, double flash) compared with trials where the visual and tactile stimuli were congruent (e.g., single vibration, single flash). However, this congruency effect was larger in the ASD group, and only the ASD group showed significantly more errors on incongruent trials relative to a baseline condition where the tactile vibration was presented alone.

In a similar task where all stimuli were visual (participants had to attend to visual flashes from a green LED while ignoring flashes from a red LED), the congruency effect did not differ between ASD and neurotypical groups, and both groups showed interference relative to baseline on incongruent trials.

Together, these results suggest that individuals with ASD do not have a general inability to ignore task-irrelevant information, but rather have a more specific visual-tactile selective attention deficit.

Poole and colleagues characterized the cognitive nature of selective attention deficits in ASD. Hogeveen and colleagues (2018, Journal of Abnormal Psychology) tested whether other kinds of cognitive processes are related to clinical symptoms of attention problems (e.g., inability to concentrate) in children with ASD.

Participants were presented with cue-probe sequences (AX, AY, BX, or BY). On 70% of the trials, the AX sequence was shown and participants had to make a target response. On a minority of trials where AY (10%), BX (10%), or BY (10%) sequences were shown, the non-target response was required.

Both ASD and neurotypical children showed performance consistent with a proactive control strategy: reaction times were slower on AY trials, suggesting that the A-cues led participants to anticipate a target response, and faster on BX and BY trials, where the B-cue reliably indicated a non-target response.

Although there was no difference in overall performance between groups, there were differences in how performance was correlated with clinical symptoms. Specifically, there was a negative correlation between a bias to give the target response on all A-cue trials (regardless of whether this is the correct response) and attention problems (measured by parental report).

The authors interpret these results to suggest that although children with ASD do not show a proactive control deficit, a derived measure that combined benefits (correct responses on AX trials) and costs (incorrect responses on AY trials) is sensitive to individual differences in clinical symptoms that could be useful for developing personalized intervention approaches.


Poole, D., Gowen, E., Warren, P. A., & Poliakoff, E. (2018). Visual-tactile selective attention in autism spectrum condition: An increased influence of visual distractors. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(9), 1309–1324.

Hogeveen, J., Krug, M. K., Elliott, M. V., Carter, C. S., & Solomon, M. (2018). Proactive control as a double-edged sword in autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 127(4), 429–435.