Attention to non-social and social details in adults with high and low degrees of autistic traits: A change blindness study

Clarence Singleton, Mark Brosnan, Chris Ashwin

Research output: Chapter or section in a book/report/conference proceedingChapter in a published conference proceeding


Non-social behaviours, such as repetitive actions and restricted interests, form one of the crucial diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). The Extreme Male Brain (EMB) theory of autism suggests that these characteristics reflect an exaggeration of typically male cognitive function, in particular a drive towards rule-based systems, or ‘Systemising’. The other core feature of ASD is socially-related and involves deficiencies in social behaviour and understanding, characterised in EMB theory as a lack of ‘Empathising’. The cognitive mechanisms underlying non-social processing and how they relate to social processing are not well understood. Researchers have suggested that these two cognitive features of ASD may be unrelated to each other in the typically developing population and that they may demand separate explanations. It is therefore suggested that research on these two processes in the neurotypical population should clarify their relatedness. Attention to detail is posited as one of the features of Systemising. Methods for assessing attention to detail include Change Blindness tasks, which measure how quickly it takes to identify changes in a flickering visual scene.
The aim of this study was to investigate the relationship between attention to social compared with non-social details, general attention to detail, and whether these relate to autistic traits in neurotypical adults. The intention was to establish whether attention to social and non-social aspects of a visual scene are related to each other and to degree of autistic traits, and therefore whether non-social and social behaviours such as those seen in ASD may in fact be explained together in terms of attentional biases.
56 participants (28 male, 28 female) completed the Autism Quotient (AQ) questionnaire to measure ASD traits before completing a Change Blindness task designed to include 52 scenes including both social and non-social features, 26 images featuring social changes (e.g. changes to a person’s face) and 26 featuring non-social changes (e.g. a change to a vehicle). Each initial image was interrupted with a blank screen for 500ms before the change image was shown. Each image ‘flickered’ until the participant spotted the change and pressed a key to record the time taken to spot it. An average response time was calculated for both the social and non-social changes. A bivariate correlation was then used to investigate the relationship between mean response time and AQ for each condition. A paired-samples t-test was employed to explore differences between response time to the social and non-social changes across the whole sample.
Analysis revealed a significant correlation between AQ and response time to social changes. There was no significant correlation between AQ and time taken to spot the non-social changes. There was a significant correlation between response time to social and non-social changes. The paired-samples t-test revealed significant differences in response time for social and non-social changes, participants taking significantly longer to identify the non-social changes.
AQ is related to greater difficulty identifying social changes, implying that those with more autistic traits pay less immediate attention to social details. Overall, people took longer to identify non-social changes, implying that in a neurotypical population social details are attended to immediately. The strong correlation between response time to social and non-social changes indicates that, at an attentional level at least, these two cognitive features of ASD may not be wholly independent of one another.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationInternational Society For Autism Research (INSAR)
Subtitle of host publicationInternational Meeting For Autism Research (IMFAR)
Publication statusPublished - 17 May 2014
EventInternational Meeting for Autism Research 2014 - Atlanta, USA United States
Duration: 15 May 201417 May 2014


ConferenceInternational Meeting for Autism Research 2014
Country/TerritoryUSA United States


  • Autism
  • Change blindness
  • Attention


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