Younger kids with autism struggle with distractions

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Before age 10, children with autism struggle with ability to block out visual distractions and focus on a specific task, research finds, and would benefit from intervention to address this.

Researchers saw in previous studies that younger children with autism had more difficulty with visual distractions when compared to their same-aged peers without autism. They didn’t see the impairment in older adolescents and adults with autism.

In the current study, researchers narrowed the age range and confirmed the earlier findings.

“Here is a cognitive difficulty that is more apparent during one age than another,” says Shawn Christ, an associate professor of psychological sciences in the University of Missouri College of Arts and Science.

“Now we can say there is a time period when these children may benefit from an intervention that focuses on accommodating or helping them overcome this difficulty. This could have a significant impact on their academic and social success. They may not need that same intervention later on in life.”

“…the difficulty is not with reading or math, it’s a difficulty with attention and inhibitory control, and there are ways to overcome that.”

For the study, which appears in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, researchers presented 80 adolescents, ages 11 to 20, with a visual filtering task. Participants had to respond as quickly as possible to a visual target while ignoring visual distractions close to the target’s location. Of the 80 participants in the study, 36 had autism.

“In our studies, we have observed differences in filtering ability between children with and without autism at younger ages such as 8-10 years old,” Christ says. “This is the time when kids are starting with more advanced topics in school, and can be a very difficult time for a child with filtering difficulties.

“It could be disrupting their ability to comprehend reading and affecting other kinds of skills, such as math. But the difficulty is not with reading or math, it’s a difficulty with attention and inhibitory control, and there are ways to overcome that.”

Researchers suggest simple interventions to help children overcome this difficulty such as using a reading window on a page that blocks the visual distraction of the other words, making a quiet room available at school to accomplish tasks, or minimizing visual distractions at home.

The University of Missouri Research Board, Autism Speaks, and the University of Missouri Thompson Center Scholar Program funded the work. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the funding agencies.

Source: University of Missouri