Visual social attention is central to social functioning and learning and may act as a reinforcer. Social rivalry, which occurs when an individual is excluded from dyadic interactions, can promote interspecific learning by triggering attention. We applied it to an animal-assisted intervention, where the behaviour of ASD children was compared between an experimental (attention shift of the animal trainer from the dog-child to the dog only) and a control (attention maintained on the dyad) groups (study 1). The results show that ASD children are sensitive to the direction of (visual) social attention and may act, physically and visually, in order to regain it. When the animal trainer concentrated on the dog, the overall visual attention of the ASD children increased, suggesting a heightened awareness towards their environment. They oriented more towards the animal trainer and the dog, contrarily to the control group. The repetition of the procedure was even associated with increased joint attention with the animal trainer (study 2). Thus, ASD children do care about and seek human visual attention. They show an ability to adapt their social behaviour, which questions whether their known deficits in social competencies are hard wired or whether the deficits are in their expression.
|Publication Title||Scientific Reports|
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