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Attentional Preferences for Predictability in Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Dissertation Project: Laura Soskey, MA

Mentor: Loisa Bennetto, PhD

Co-Mentor: Celeste Kidd, PhD

attentional preferences imageAttention patterns and preferences have become a key area of research in understanding individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) due to the critical role that attention plays in learning and development across the lifespan. Results from many studies have shown that people with ASD have differences in the way they pay attention to their environment, and that early differences in attention have been associated with later difficulties with social communication. Across studies that have examined attention differences in ASD, some of the clearest differences have emerged in studies of attention to complex, dynamic social stimuli (e.g., two real people interacting in a video).

Real world social interactions are often variable and unpredictable across individuals and situations, and it may be that this lack of predictability in social interactions contributes to difficulties with social cognition and communication in children with ASD. Previous research has shown that typically developing children prefer to pay attention to intermediately predictable events in the environment – not so simple that they are boring, but not so complex that they are impossible to learn. However, we do not yet know how predictability influences attention preferences in children with ASD. If children with ASD have a stronger preference for paying attention to predictable events, they may be learning from their environment differently, which could have a particular impact on learning from social interactions.

In this study, we are investigating how the amount of predictability in a sequence of visual events influences how young children with ASD pay attention to these sequences of events. This study uses eye tracking and touch screen tasks to examine attention preferences while children observe and interact with their environment. Children who participate in this study will be asked to watch videos on a screen and use game-like programs on a touch screen tablet so that we can understand more about their attentional preferences across learning contexts.

The findings from this study will allow us to understand how predictability (or lack thereof) impacts how children with ASD pay attention to different events in their environment, and ultimately how these attention preferences impact communication and learning.

This project is funded by the NIMH (1F31MH113269-01A1) and NICHD [1R21DC016165-01]

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