• Attention;
  • autistic disorder;
  • Down syndrome;
  • pervasive developmental disorder;
  • temperament;
  • visuo-spatial functioning

Background:  The present study examined the disengage and shift operations of visual attention in young children with autism.

Methods:  For this purpose, we used a simple visual orienting task that is thought to engage attention automatically. Once attention was first engaged on a central fixation stimulus, a second stimulus was presented on either side, either simultaneously or successively. Latency to begin an eye movement to the peripheral stimulus served as the main dependent measure. The two stimulus conditions (simultaneous and successive) provided independent measures of disengaging and shifting attention, respectively. Performance of children with autism was compared to that of children with Down syndrome and a normal group.

Results:  The main finding was that relative to both comparison groups, children with autism had marked difficulty in disengaging attention. Indeed, on 20% of trials they remained fixated on the first of two competing stimuli for the entire 8-second trial duration. Evidence is also provided for a more subtle problem in executing rapid shifts of attention.

Conclusions:  Our findings on disengagement in autism parallel those reported in normal 2-month-olds, in whom attention has been described as ‘obligatory’. Discussion focuses on the potential role of general versus domain-specific processes in producing some of the core features of autism.