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Children with ASD Have Greater Visual Focus

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on June 6, 2014
visual focus


Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by atypical communication, social skills, and behaviors. While much research has focused on deficits in speech and social learning, few studies have focused on areas where children with ASD outperform their peers—namely, in the performance of many visual tasks requiring sustained attention.


What’s New: On March 7, 2014, the journal Scientific Reports published a study comparing the visual capabilities of autistic children and their typically developing peers. The researchers—who had previously shown that toddlers with ASD scored better on visual search tasks—measured pupil dilation in 34 children between the ages of one and three years as they viewed pictures and animations containing a distinct target. For example, the children were encouraged to locate a red apple in an image that also contained blue apples and other red shapes. Pupil dilation in the 17 children with ASD indicated that, while they searched similarly to their peers, their focus was much more intense.


Why it’s important: For the first time, pupillometry, a sensitive measure of task-based pupil responses, is used to evaluate superior visual performance in children with ASD compared to typically developing controls.The differences observed in the two groups indicate different activity levels of the locus coeruleus-norepinephrine (LC-NE) system, part of the brain underlying the regulation of attention. This study lends support to the idea that individuals with ASD could perform better on tasks requiring undistracted focus compared to tasks requiring rapid shifts in attention.

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