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In recent years there has been a growing interest in the role of attention in the processing of social stimuli in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Research has demonstrated that, for typical adults, faces have a special status in attention and are processed in an automatic and mandatory fashion even when participants attempt to ignore them. Under conditions of high load in a selective attention task, when irrelevant stimuli are usually not processed, typical adults continue to process distractor faces. Although there is evidence of a lack of attentional bias towards faces in ASD, there has been no direct test of whether faces are processed automatically using the distractor-face paradigm. In the present study 16 typical adults and 16 adults with ASD performed selective attention tasks with face and musical instrument distractors. The results indicated that even when the load of the central task was high, typical adults continued to be distracted by irrelevant face stimuli, whereas individuals with ASD were able to ignore them. In the equivalent non-social task, distractors had no effect at high load for either group. The results suggest that faces are processed in an automatic and mandatory fashion in typical adults but not in adults with ASD.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





59 - 73


Adult, Attention, Case-Control Studies, Child, Child Development Disorders, Pervasive, Face, Female, Humans, Male, Photic Stimulation, Reaction Time, Young Adult