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Similar social attention, physiological arousal, and familiarity effect in autistic and neurotypical children: A real-life recreational eye-tracking paradigm.

Social attention is reported to be crucial for the development of social skills, and, according to the social cognitive developmental theory, is fostered by social interactions. Autism is of central importance to the study of social attention, as autism is characterized by atypical social interactions and low social attention, both linked according to the social motivation theory to diminished social interest. Much evidence for positing low social interest in autism comes from eye-tracking studies, which, however, lack ecological validity. Our study documents social attention and physiological arousal, within close to real-life settings, in autistic children, as well as in their neurotypical peers, matched on gender and mental or chronological age. To explore the potential influence of partner familiarity or of the conversational topic, children gaze and electrodermal activity were recorded while they engaged in watercolor activities with, first a familiar and, next, an unfamiliar adult experimenter, who both introduced various topics. Autistic and neurotypical children exhibited comparable attention to their partners' eyes. Notably, across all groups, heightened visual attention was directed to familiar rather than unfamiliar partners. Moreover, parallel arousal patterns emerged, with all children displaying increased skin conductance responses during more engaging topics and when looking at their interactional partner's eyes. These findings underscore the task- and context-dependent nature of social attention and highlight the role of familiarity in an ecologically valid context. The absence of group differences challenges the universality of the social cognitive developmental theory and questions the scope of the social motivation theory of autism. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2024 APA, all rights reserved).

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