Investigating the auditory attentional networks in autism spectrum disorder

  • Awarded: 2014
  • Award Type: Explorer
  • Award #: 330704

Although autism is characterized primarily by impairments in social skills and communication, as well as restricted interests and repetitive behaviors, it has become evident that attention abnormalities may play a critical role in the symptom presentation of the disorder. Attention refers to the activity of a set of alerting, orienting and executive-control brain networks. Flexibility in these networks allocates mental resources to influence the priority of domain-specific information processing. By using the Attention Network Test (ANT), Jin Fan and his colleagues at theQueens College/CUNY previously showed lower efficiency of the visual alerting and executive control networks in autism, when compared with controls.

Fan and his team aim to characterize the auditory attentional deficit in autism as well as the relation between this deficit, social and communication deficits, and restricted interests and repetitive behaviors. In 2015, the researchers developed a test, the auditory ANT, which allows them to examine the efficiency and interactions of the attentional functions in the auditory modality. Administering this new paradigm to individuals with autism and controls will enable researchers to characterize the auditory attentional networks in autism for the first time, and to examine the relation between joint attention and social orienting functions, and orienting toward auditory stimuli in autism.

Characterizing the efficiency and interactions of the auditory attentional networks in autism is theoretically relevant and clinically significant. Atypical response to auditory stimuli in infancy is predictive of later diagnosis of autism, and this feature, along with poor joint attention abilities, may have detrimental consequences on the acquisition of other cognitive skills, such as language and effective communication.

Characterizing auditory attentional deficits will improve researchers’ ability to diagnose autism, as well as diagnostic specificity, as it has been shown that these attentional difficulties may be specific to autism. Further, it has been shown that interventions targeted at atypical attentional networks may produce generalized improvements across multiple domains. Understanding the auditory attentional network deficits and their relation to other cognitive symptoms will help researchers to develop targeted behavioral interventions for autism.

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