Kleberg, J. L., Thorup, E., and Falck-Ytter, T. (2017) Reduced visual disengagement but intact phasic alerting in young children with autism Autism Research

Children with autism may have difficulties with visual disengagement—that is, inhibiting current fixations and orienting to new stimuli in the periphery. These difficulties may limit these children's ability to flexibly monitor the environment, regulate their internal states, and interact with others. In typical development, visual disengagement is influenced by a phasic alerting network that increases the processing speed of the visual system after salient events. The role of the phasic alerting effect in the putative atypical disengagement performance in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is not known. Here, we compared visual disengagement in six-year-old children with autism (N = 18) and typically developing children (N = 17) matched for age and nonverbal IQ. We manipulated phasic alerting during a visual disengagement task by adding spatially nonpredictive sounds shortly before the onset of the visual peripheral targets. Children with ASD showed evidence of delayed disengagement compared to the control group. Sounds facilitated visual disengagement similarly in both groups, suggesting typical modulation by phasic alerting in ASD in the context of this task. These results support the view that atypical visual disengagement in ASD is related to other factors than atypicalities in the alerting network.