Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society

Research Article

Visual attention abnormalities in autism: Delayed orienting to location

Jeanne Townsenda1a2, Naomi Singer Harrisa2a3 and Eric Courchesnea1a2

a1 University of California, San Diego, Department of Neurosciences, La Jolla, CA 92093

a2 Autism and Brain Development Research Lab, Children's Hospital Research Center, San Diego, CA 92123

a3 San Diego State University, Department of Psychology/University of California, San Diego, Department of Psychiatry, San Diego, CA 92182


These studies provide evidence for slowed spatial orienting of attention in autism. A group of well-defined adult autistic subjects and age-matched normal controls performed a traditional spatial cueing task in which attention-related response facilitation is indexed by speed of target detection. To address the concern that motor impairment may interfere with interpretation of response time measures in those with neurologic abnormality, we also used a new adaptation of the traditional task that depended on accuracy of response (target discrimination) rather than speed of response. This design allowed separation of time to process and respond to target information from the time to move and engage (orient) attention. Results from both tasks were strikingly similar. Normal subjects oriented attention very quickly, and showed maximal performance facilitation at a cued location within 100 ms. Autistic subjects oriented attention much more slowly and showed increasing benefits of a spatial cue with increasing cue-to-target delays. These results are consistent with previous reports that patients with autism, the majority of whom have developmental abnormalities of the cerebellum, as well as those with acquired damage to the cerebellum, are slow to shift attention between and within modalities. This paper also addresses the variability in behavioral findings in autism, and suggests that many of the apparently contradictory findings may actually reflect sampling differences in patterns of brain pathology. (JINS, 1996, 2, 541–550.)

(Received September 18 1995)

(Revised January 16 1996)

(Accepted January 26 1996)


Reprint requests to: Jeanne Townsend, Autism and Brain Development Research Lab. 8110 La Jolla Shores Drive. Room 200B. La Jolla. CA 92037.