BACKGROUND: Recent research has identified differences in relative attention to competing social versus non-social video stimuli in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Whether attentional allocation is influenced by the potential threat of stimuli has yet to be investigated. This is manipulated in the current study by the extent to which the stimuli are moving towards or moving past the viewer. Furthermore, little is known about whether such differences exist across other neurodevelopmental disorders. This study aims to determine if adolescents with ASD demonstrate differences in attentional allocation to competing pairs of social and non-social video stimuli, where the actor or object either moves towards or moves past the viewer, in comparison to individuals without ASD, and to determine if individuals with three genetic syndromes associated with differing social phenotypes demonstrate differences in attentional allocation to the same stimuli.
METHODS: In study 1, adolescents with ASD and control participants were presented with social and non-social video stimuli in two formats (moving towards or moving past the viewer) whilst their eye movements were recorded. This paradigm was then employed with groups of individuals with fragile X, Cornelia de Lange, and Rubinstein-Taybi syndromes who were matched with one another on chronological age, global adaptive behaviour, and verbal adaptive behaviour (study 2).
RESULTS: Adolescents with ASD demonstrated reduced looking-time to social versus non-social videos only when stimuli were moving towards them. Individuals in the three genetic syndrome groups showed similar looking-time but differences in fixation latency for social stimuli moving towards them. Across both studies, we observed within- and between-group differences in attention to social stimuli that were moving towards versus moving past the viewer.
CONCLUSIONS: Taken together, these results provide strong evidence to suggest differential visual attention to competing social versus non-social video stimuli in populations with clinically relevant, genetically mediated differences in socio-behavioural phenotypes.