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People with autism consistently demonstrate a lack sensitivity to the full range of important aspects of everyday situations. Often, an overly restricted subset of the information available in a given situation gains control over their behavior. This can result in problems generalizing learned behaviors to novel situations. This phenomenon has been called overselectivity. Indeed, many behavioral intervention techniques seek to mitigate overselectivity effects in this population. In this paper, we offer an account of overselectivity as arising from an inability to flexibly adjust the attentional influences of the prefrontal cortex on behavior. We posit that dysfunctional dopamine interactions with the prefrontal cortex result in overly perseverative attention in people with autism. Limiting attention to only a few of the features of a situation hinders the learning of associations between the full range of relevant environmental properties and appropriate behavior. Thus, a restricted subset of features gain control over responding. A simple neurocomputational model of the attentional effects of prefrontal cortex on learning is presented, demonstrating how weak dopamine modulation of frontal areas can lead to overselectivity.
Date of Conference: 9-12 Aug. 2008