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The role of attention in learning for pupils with and without autism

MCDOUGAL, EMILY,ELIZABETH (2019) The role of attention in learning for pupils with and without autism. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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In this thesis, an in-depth investigation into the relationship between attention abilities and learning in primary school aged children with and without an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) was conducted. This investigation began using standardised assessments of attention and academic achievement to enable the measurement of abilities while taking age into account (Study 1). Divided attention was related to reading and maths for autistic pupils and played a role in defining different profiles of achievement. Subgroups of children with better or poorer divided attention showed different within-domain strengths and in reading and maths. Further analysis revealed that similar profiles existed transdiagnostically, highlighting the importance of considering ASD alongside TD children, as opposed to between groups.

To consider the real-world manifestation of these relationships, Study 2 used measures that represented classroom-based attention and learning. This included eye tracking as a real-time attention measure, videos of short lessons to stimulate learning, and a computer-based measure of attention abilities. Sustained attention was transdiagnostically important for attending to relevant information during a lesson (i.e. looking at the teacher), and for learning from that lesson. Autistic children benefited from allocating visual attention to the teacher during lessons, but this was not true for TD children. Several autistic children could not successfully complete the eye-tracking task, and an initial investigation suggested that this was due to differences in cognitive ability and behaviour. This indicated the importance of considering within group heterogeneity, as well as other factors at play.
The final two studies therefore aimed to consider the role of other factors impacting on the relationship between attention and learning in ASD, beginning with a qualitative exploration in a real-world context (Study 3). Semi-structured interviews with teachers revealed the complexity of this relationship, with a particular focus on the roles of anxiety and sensory processing difficulties. Study 4 investigated these factors quantitatively using parent-report measures of anxiety and sensory processing, which ultimately reinforced the findings of Study 3. In ASD, increased levels of anxiety were related to poorer divided attention and reading achievement, suggesting both anxiety and attention play an important role for children while learning in the classroom. Sensory processing symptoms played an indirect role, as they were related to anxiety in ASD, but not attention or achievement.

Taken together, this mixed methods thesis provided a rich and comprehensive understanding of the relationship between attention and learning in ASD. Throughout the thesis, the theoretical and practical implications of these findings are discussed, in addition to suggestions for accounting for heterogeneity in both attention and learning in this group.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:autism; attention; academic achievement
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Science > Psychology, Department of
Thesis Date:2019
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:02 Dec 2019 13:06

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