Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurogenetic disorder characterized by social-communication deficits as well as restricted and repetitive interests and behaviors. Differences in perceptual coherence, including a local perceptual bias at the expense of global processing and perseverative visual attention related to circumscribed interests, are thought to underlie key features of ASD. Local and global (i.e., selective attention to parts vs. wholes, respectively) processing abilities rely on different underlying neural correlates, which may correspond to ASD symptomatology and severity. Differences in perceptual coherence and attentional styles have also been observed in family members of individuals with ASD, along with a constellation of subclinical features believed to index genetic liability (i.e., the broad autism phenotype; BAP). Similar to what has been observed in individuals with ASD, evidence suggests that relatives may also demonstrate a preference for local features of their visual scene compared to parents of typically developing individuals. Such patterns may serve as a phenotypic marker of genetic liability to ASD. This proposal employs eye tracking to examine i) visual perception during two tasks of perceptual coherence (illusory contours and the Navon hierarchical stimuli) and attention during one task of visual perseveration (visual exploration of social and non-social arrays). Using a family-genetic design, the study will explore these visual strategies in high functioning individuals with ASD and their parents. Further, the proposal examines performance on perceptual coherence and attentional tasks in relationship to a broad battery of existing clinical, cognitive, language, and social-cognitive data available on an existing sample of probands and parents participating in a companion study. The use of eye tracking may afford insights into underlying processing strategies that give rise to perceptual biases and/or attention and perseveration, which may importantly relate to clinical phenotypes, and serve as candidate endophenotypes.
This project proposes to investigate visual perceptual and attentional strategies in individuals with ASD and their biological parents. Characterizing behavioral and neuropsychological features associated with perceptual coherence, and aggregating in families of individuals with ASD, will provide important information that can guide research into the biological basis of ASD and the rational development of targeted treatments.