Attention Capture by Trains and Faces in Children with and Without Autism Spectrum Disorder

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This study examined involuntary capture of attention, overt attention, and stimulus valence and arousal ratings, all factors that can contribute to potential attentional biases to face and train objects in children with and without autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In the visual domain, faces are particularly captivating, and are thought to have a 'special status' in the attentional system. Research suggests that similar attentional biases may exist for other objects of expertise (e.g. birds for bird experts), providing support for the role of exposure in attention prioritization. Autistic individuals often have circumscribed interests around certain classes of objects, such as trains, that are related to vehicles and mechanical systems. This research aimed to determine whether this propensity in autistic individuals leads to stronger attention capture by trains, and perhaps weaker attention capture by faces, than what would be expected in non-autistic children. In Experiment 1, autistic children (6–14 years old) and age- and IQ-matched non-autistic children performed a visual search task where they manually indicated whether a target butterfly appeared amongst an array of face, train, and neutral distractors while their eye-movements were tracked. Autistic children were no less susceptible to attention capture by faces than non-autistic children. Overall, for both groups, trains captured attention more strongly than face stimuli and, trains had a larger effect on overt attention to the target stimuli, relative to face distractors. In Experiment 2, a new group of children (autistic and non-autistic) rated train stimuli as more interesting and exciting than the face stimuli, with no differences between groups. These results suggest that: (1) other objects (trains) can capture attention in a similar manner as faces, in both autistic and non-autistic children (2) attention capture is driven partly by voluntary attentional processes related to personal interest or affective responses to the stimuli.
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