The social and communicative abnormalities associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have been rigorously studied for several years. Programs have been developed to offer treatment to individuals with ASD starting at a young age. Many of these programs focus on the improvement of social engagement, behavior, and communication (Schertz et al., 2012). Unfortunately, these programs have varying results and have the potential to create large amounts of debt for the families (Kaminski et al., 2008). In addition to the debt, many families report a regression of the individual seeking treatment in overall functioning during the treatment process (Ozonoff & Cathcard, 1998). This decline has been attributed to an increase in stress levels that accompanies the treatment program (Ozonoff & Cathcard, 1998). If a treatment plan were developed that was cost effective and could reduce the environmental stress that seems to be related to ASD treatment, it would provide treatment options to populations on the extreme end of the financial scale. It has already been shown that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has the potential to alleviate stress levels in individuals with a persistent pathology (Goldberg et al., 1994). This finding indicates the potential for a cognitive treatment model in which to treat specific pathologies, including ASD.
A main reason for the lack of an implementation of these CBT related treatment plans for ASD is a lack of knowledge relating cognition and Autism. In 2010 Bressler and Menon proposed that the simplistic mapping of cognitive abilities on specific brain regions maybe inaccurate. It was also suggested that brain areas do not function as mutually exclusive modules, but instead work together to achieve a specific function such as social communication (Bressler & Menon, 2010). Additionally, brain imaging studies have revealed atypicality in all three networks in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), particularly hypoactivity in the anterior insula of the salience network for social stimuli (Di Martino et al., 2009). These findings suggest a cognitive approach to reducing ASD severity by enhancing the relative attentional salience of social stimuli.
The goal of the UROP project is to examine the impact of autism traits on the attentional salience of social and nonsocial stimuli. College students were tested in a decision-making task. On each trial participants saw two photographs presented side by side. One photograph involved social contents (e.g., people talking to each other), while the other had no social content (e.g., a natural scene with no people). Participants were told that “treasure” was hidden behind one of the two photographs, but they had no information about which one was the treasure image. We measured participants’ propensity to choose the social image, while varying reward associated with the social and nonsocial images. Participants also completed an Autism Spectrum Quotient (Baron-Cohen et al., 2001) and were divided into high-AQ (high autism trait) and low-AQ (low autism trait) groups. We found that increased levels of the autism trait were associated with a slight preference to the nonsocial images when compared to low levels of the autism trait.