Attention is a complex psychological construct that taps into multiple brain mechanisms, and it is thought that attentional abnormalities are common in children with autism spectrum disorders. However, not all aspects of attention are deficient in these children. Yuhong Jiang and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota investigated the integrity of one type of attention in autism: stimulus-driven attention that is guided by implicit (unconscious) learning.
The study involved high-functioning children with autism and typically developing children engaged in a visual search task. Unbeknownst to them, the target (a specific fish) was more often found in some locations than in others. Both groups of children were faster and more efficient in finding the target in the high-probability locations than in the low-probability locations, and this bias dissipated after the target’s location probability became random. The pace and magnitude of the learning, as well as the adjustment to changes in the location probability, were comparable between the two groups.
This project provides strong evidence for the preservation of implicitly guided attention in children with autism. Given the ubiquity of implicit learning in children’s daily activities, these findings may inform the development of treatment strategies that capitalize on their strength in implicitly learned attention.