As a way of explaining various core symptoms of autism—social impairments, communication issues, and narrowly defined interests—some researchers had suggested that impaired attention might be to blame. Although children with autism spectrum disorders can also struggle with attentional problems, a new study has found that impaired attention is not the unifying feature of autism’s main symptoms. While this research, which was carried out by a team from MIT, does not advance an alternative theory, the researchers claim that discovering what is not a part of autism contributes to a fuller understanding of the disorder.

In the study, children with high-functioning autism and children without autism who were age and IQ-matched completed an attention task. Researchers tracked the children’s eye movements to determine whether children with autism were slower to respond to social stimuli like faces and whether they were less skilled at adapting to new stimuli than neurotypical children.

The researchers found that the children with autism clearly demonstrated the ability to orient themselves to social stimuli. Furthermore, there was no difference in ability between the two groups when it came adjusting to social or other stimuli. These results indicate that the symptoms of autism are probably not the result of poor attention.

Two of the study’s authors, Jason Fischer and Kami Koldewyn explain that identifying what does not contribute to the causes or symptoms of autism is important because it can “help families and educators design effective interventions to work on those cognitive skills that are true areas of weakness in autism.”

This study is published in a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, Clinical Psychological Science.

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