Attentional influences on neural processing of biological motion in typically developing children and those on the autism spectrum

Emily J. Knight, Aaron I. Krakowski, Edward G. Freedman, John S. Butler, Sophie Molholm, John J. Foxe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Background: Biological motion imparts rich information related to the movement, actions, intentions and affective state of others, which can provide foundational support for various aspects of social cognition and behavior. Given that atypical social communication and cognition are hallmark symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), many have theorized that a potential source of this deficit may lie in dysfunctional neural mechanisms of biological motion processing. Synthesis of existing literature provides some support for biological motion processing deficits in autism spectrum disorder, although high study heterogeneity and inconsistent findings complicate interpretation. Here, we attempted to reconcile some of this residual controversy by investigating a possible modulating role for attention in biological motion processing in ASD. Methods: We employed high-density electroencephalographic recordings while participants observed point-light displays of upright, inverted and scrambled biological motion under two task conditions to explore spatiotemporal dynamics of intentional and unintentional biological motion processing in children and adolescents with ASD (n = 27), comparing them to a control cohort of neurotypical (NT) participants (n = 35). Results: Behaviorally, ASD participants were able to discriminate biological motion with similar accuracy to NT controls. However, electrophysiologic investigation revealed reduced automatic selective processing of upright biologic versus scrambled motion stimuli in ASD relative to NT individuals, which was ameliorated when task demands required explicit attention to biological motion. Additionally, we observed distinctive patterns of covariance between visual potentials evoked by biological motion and functional social ability, such that Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scale-Socialization domain scores were differentially associated with biological motion processing in the N1 period in the ASD but not the NT group. Limitations: The cross-sectional design of this study does not allow us to definitively answer the question of whether developmental differences in attention to biological motion cause disruption in social communication, and the sample was limited to children with average or above cognitive ability. Conclusions: Together, these data suggest that individuals with ASD are able to discriminate, with explicit attention, biological from non-biological motion but demonstrate diminished automatic neural specificity for biological motion processing, which may have cascading implications for the development of higher-order social cognition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number33
JournalMolecular Autism
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2022


  • ASD
  • Biological motion
  • ERP
  • Event-related potentials
  • Social cognition
  • VEP
  • Visual evoked potential

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Developmental Biology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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