BACKGROUND: Abnormalities in habituation have been documented in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Williams syndrome (WS). Such abnormalities have been proposed to underlie the distinctive social and non-social difficulties that define ASD, including sensory features and repetitive behaviours, and the distinctive social phenotype characterizing WS.
METHODS: We measured habituation in 39 preschoolers with ASD, 20 peers with WS and 19 typically developing (TD) children using an eye-tracking protocol that measured participants' duration of attention in response to a repeating stimulus and a novel stimulus presented side by side across multiple trials.
RESULTS: Participants in the TD group and the WS group decreased their attention toward the repeating stimulus and increased their attention to the novel stimulus over time. Conversely, the ASD group showed a similar attentional response to the novel and repeating stimuli. Habituation was correlated with social functioning in the WS but not in the ASD group. Contrary to predictions, slower habituation in ASD was associated with lower severity of repetitive behaviours.
CONCLUSIONS: Habituation appears to be intact in WS and impaired in ASD. More research is needed to clarify the nature of the syndrome-specific patterns of correlations between habituation and social and non-social functioning in these neurodevelopmental disorders.