Cross-Modal Attention-Switching is Impaired in Autism Spectrum Disorders

  • Phil Reed
  • Julia McCarthy
Original Paper


This investigation aimed to determine if children with ASD are impaired in their ability to switch attention between different tasks, and whether performance is further impaired when required to switch across two separate modalities (visual and auditory). Eighteen children with ASD (9–13 years old) were compared with 18 typically-developing children matched with the ASD group for mental age, and also with 18 subjects with learning difficulties matched with the ASD group for mental and chronological age. Individuals alternated between two different visual tasks, and between a different visual task and an auditory task. Children with ASD performed worse than both comparison groups at both switching tasks. Moreover, children with ASD had greater difficulty when different modalities were required than where only one modality was required in the switching task in comparison with participants matched in terms of mental and chronological age.


Attention switching Cross-modal Autism 



We would like to acknowledge the kind participation of the children in this research, and we thank them very much for their time and involvement. Thanks are also due to the parents of the children who kindly participated, and to Lisa A. Osborne for her support.


  1. Birnie-Selwyn, B., & Guerin, B. (1997). Teaching children to spell: Decreasing consonant cluster errors by eliminating selective stimulus control. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30, 69–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Boucher, J., Lewis, V., & Collins, G. (1998). Familiar face and voice matching and recognition in children with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 39, 171–181.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Broomfield, L., McHugh, L., & Reed, P. (2008). Re-emergence of under-selected stimuli, after the extinction of over-selected stimuli in an automated match to samples procedure. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 29, 503–512.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Celani, G., Walter, M., & Archidiacono, L. (1999). The understanding of the emotional meaning of facial expressions in people with Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 29, 57–66.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Courchesne, E., Townsend, J., Akshoomoff, N., Saitoh, O., Yeung-Courchesne, R., Lincoln, A. J., et al. (1994). Impairment in shifting attention in Autistic and Cerebellar Patients’. Behavioural Neuroscience, 108, 848–865.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Crown, C. L., Feldstein, S., Jasnow, M. D., Beebe, B., & Jaffe, J. (2002). The cross-modal coordination of interpersonal timing: Six-week-olds infants’ gaze with adults’ vocal behavior. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 31, 1–23.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Dawson, G., Munson, J., Estes, A., Osterling, J., McPartland, J., et al. (2002). Neurocognitive function and joint attention ability in young children with Autism Spectrum Disorder versus Developmental Delay. Child Development, 73, 345–358.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Dube, W. V. (2009). Stimulus overselectivity in discrimination learning. In P. Reed (Ed.), Behavioural theories and interventions for autism. New York: Nova.Google Scholar
  9. Dunn, L. M., Whetton, C., & Pintilie, D. (1982). The British picture vocabulary scale. Windsor: NFER-Nelson.Google Scholar
  10. Geurts, H. M., Corbett, B., & Solomon, M. (2009). The paradox of cognitive flexibility in Autism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13, 74–82.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Gilliam, J. E. (1995). Gilliam autism rating scale. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.Google Scholar
  12. Gioia, G. A., Isquith, P. K., Kenworthy, L., & Barton, R. M. (2002). Profiles of everyday executive function in acquired and developmental disorders. Child Neuropsychology, 8, 121–137.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Hall, G., & Channell, S. (1985). A comparison of intra-dimensional and extradimensional shift learning in pigeons. Behaviour Processes, 10, 285–295.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hill, E. L. (2004). Evaluating the theory of executive dysfunction in Autism. Developmental Review, 24, 189–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Howell, D. C. (1997). Statistical methods for psychology. Belmont, CA: Wandsworth.Google Scholar
  16. Hughes, C., Russell, J., & Robbins, T. W. (1994). Evidence for executive dysfunction in Autism. Neuropsychologia, 32, 477–492.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Jordan, T. R., & Thomas, S. M. (2001). Effects of horizontal viewing angle on visual and audiovisual speech recognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27, 1386–1403.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Leader, G., Loughnane, A., Mc Moreland, C., & Reed, P. (2009). The effect of stimulus salience on over-selectivity. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39, 330–338.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Lovaas, O. I., Schreibman, L., Koegel, R., & Rehm, R. (1971). Selective responding by autistic children to multiple sensory input. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 77, 211–222.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Mann, T., & Walker, P. (2003). Do children with autism fail to process information in context? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44, 285–300.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Pascualvaca, D. M., Fantie, B. D., Papageorgiou, M., & Mirsky, A. E. (1998). Attentional capacities in children with autism: Is there a general deficit in shifting focus? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 28, 467–479.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Pennington, B. F., & Ozonoff, S. (1996). Executive functions and developmental psychopathologies. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 37, 51–87.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Philip, R. C. M., Whalley, H. C., Stanfield, A. C., Sprengelmeyer, R., Santos, I. M., Young, A. W., et al. (2010). Deficits in facial, body movement and vocal emotional processing in autism spectrum disorders. Psychological Medicine, 40, 1919–1929.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Reed, P., Broomfield, L., McHugh, L., McCausland, A., & Leader, G. (2009). Extinction of over-selected stimuli causes re-emergence of previously under-selected stimuli in higher functioning children with autistic spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39, 290–298.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Reed, P., Osborne, L. A., & Corness, M. (2010). Effectiveness of special nursery provision for children with autistic spectrum disorder. Autism, 14, 67–82.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Roid, G. H., & Miller, L. J. (1997). Leiter international performance scale—Revised. Wood Dale, IL: Stoelting.Google Scholar
  27. South, M., Ozonoff, S., & McMahon, W. M. (2007). The relationship between executive functioning, central coherence, and repetitive behaviors in the high-functioning autism spectrum. Autism, 11, 437–451.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Townsend, J., Harris, N. S., & Courchesne, E. (1996). Visual attention abnormalities in autism. Delayed orienting to location. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 2, 541–550.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Tsatsanis, K. D., Dartnall, N., Cicchetti, D., Sparrow, S. S., Klin, A., & Volkmar, F. R. (2003). Concurrent validity and classification accuracy of the Leiter and Leiter-R in low functioning children with Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 33, 23–30.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Varni, J. W., Lovaas, O. I., Kogel, R. L., & Everett, N. L. (1979). An analysis of observational learning in autistic and normal children. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 7, 31–43.Google Scholar
  31. Wainwright, J. A., & Bryson, S. E. (1996). Visual-spatial orienting in Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 26, 423–438.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Yerys, B. E., Wallace, G. L., Harrison, B., Celano, M. J., Giedd, J. N., & Kenworthy, L. E. (2009). Set-shifting in children with autism spectrum disorders: Reversal shifting deficits on the Intradimensional/Extradimensional Shift Test correlate with repetitive behavior. Autism, 13, 523–539.PubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologySwansea UniversitySwanseaUK

Personalised recommendations