Visual attention and inhibitory control in children, teenagers and adults with autism without intellectual disability: results of oculomotor tasks from a 2-year longitudinal follow-up study (InFoR)

Anouck Amestoy, Etienne Guillaud, Giulia Bucchioni, Tiziana Zalla, Daniel Umbricht, Christopher Chatham, Lorraine Murtagh, Josselin Houenou, Richard Delorme, Myriam Ly-Le Moal, Marion Leboyer, Manuel Bouvard, Jean-René Cazalets
Molecular Autism. 2021-11-13; 12(1):
DOI: 10.1186/s13229-021-00474-2

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Inhibitory control and attention processing atypicalities are implicated in various diseases, including autism spectrum disorders (ASD). These cognitive functions can be tested by using visually guided saccade-based paradigms in children, adolescents and adults to determine the time course of such disorders.

In this study, using Gap, Step, Overlap and Antisaccade tasks, we analyzed the oculomotor behavior of 82 children, teenagers and adults with high functioning ASD and their peer typically developing (TD) controls in a two-year follow-up study under the auspices of the InFoR-Autism project. Analysis of correlations between oculomotors task measurements and diagnostic assessment of attentional (ADHD-RS and ADHD comorbidity indices) and executive functioning (BRIEF scales) were conducted in order to evaluate their relationship with the oculomotor performance of participants with ASD.

As indicated by the presence of a Gap and Overlap effects in all age groups, the oculomotor performances of ASD participants showed a preserved capability in overt attention switching. In contrast, the difference in performances of ASD participants in the Antisaccade task, compared to their TD peers, indicated an atypical development of inhibition and executive functions. From correlation analysis between our oculomotor data and ADHD comorbidity index, and scores of attention and executive function difficulties, our findings support the hypothesis that a specific dysfunction of inhibition skills occurs in ASD participants that is independent of the presence of ADHD comorbidity.

These include the relatively small sample size of the ASD group over the study’s two-year period, the absence of an ADHD-only control group and the evaluation of a TD control group solely at the study’s inception.

Children and teenagers with ASD have greater difficulty in attention switching and inhibiting prepotent stimuli. Adults with ASD can overcome these difficulties, but, similar to teenagers and children with ASD, they make more erroneous and anticipatory saccades and display a greater trial-to-trial variability in all oculomotor tasks compared to their peers. Our results are indicative of a developmental delay in the maturation of executive and attentional functioning in ASD and of a specific impairment in inhibitory control.

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