Differences in visual attention have long been recognized as a central characteristic of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Regardless of social content, children with ASD show a strong preference for perceptual salience-how interesting (i.e., striking) certain stimuli are, based on their visual properties (e.g., color, geometric patterning). However, we do not know the extent to which attentional allocation preferences for perceptual salience persist when they compete with top-down, linguistic information. This study examined the impact of competing perceptual salience on visual word recognition in 17 children with ASD (mean age 31 months) and 17 children with typical development (mean age 20 months) matched on receptive language skills. A word recognition task presented two images on a screen, one of which was named (e.g., Find the bowl!). On Neutral trials, both images had high salience (i.e., were colorful and had geometric patterning). On Competing trials, the distracter image had high salience but the target image had low salience, creating competition between bottom-up (i.e., salience-driven) and top-down (i.e., language-driven) processes. Though both groups of children showed word recognition in an absolute sense, competing perceptual salience significantly decreased attention to the target only in the children with ASD. These findings indicate that perceptual properties of objects can disrupt attention to relevant information in children with ASD, which has implications for supporting their language development. Findings also demonstrate that perceptual salience affects attentional allocation preferences in children with ASD, even in the absence of social stimuli. LAY SUMMARY: This study found that visually striking objects distract young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) from looking at relevant (but less striking) objects named by an adult. Language-matched, younger children with typical development were not significantly affected by this visual distraction. Though visual distraction could have cascading negative effects on language development in children with ASD, learning opportunities that build on children’s focus of attention are likely to support positive outcomes.
© 2020 International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals LLC.