Reduced goal-directed action control in autism spectrum disorder

Gail A. Alvares, B.W. Balleine, L. Whittle, A.J. Guastella

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)


© 2016 International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a group of heterogeneous neurodevelopmental conditions associated with persistent, stereotyped or repetitive actions, and patterns of interest that are maintained in spite of possible negative outcomes. The aim of the present study was to investigate whether impairments in the ability to execute flexible goal-directed actions may be an underlying feature in ASD contributing to these symptoms. Young adults diagnosed with ASD were recruited along with controls and adults with social anxiety disorder (SAD). Participants were trained to make keyboard actions for food outcomes and then subsequently allowed to consume one outcome till satiety. As expected, this outcome devaluation procedure reduced subsequent responding for actions predicting the devalued outcome, while maintaining responding on the other still-valued action, in controls. However, both ASD and SAD participants were unable to demonstrate flexible goal-directed actions, and were insensitive to the change in outcome value on subsequent action control. This behavioral deficit was not due to impairments in appropriate contingency awareness, as all groups rated the devalued food outcome as less pleasant after devaluation. A lack of control over actions may underlie persistent and habitual actions in anxiety-inducing contexts typical in both ASD and SAD, such as avoidance and safety behaviors. Using a translational behavioral paradigm, this study demonstrated that individuals with ASD are unable to use changes in the environment to flexibly update their behavior in the same context. This reduced behavioral control may underlie persistence of intrusive actions and restricted inflexible cognition, representing a specific area for targeted behavioral interventions. Autism Res 2016. © 2016 International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Autism Res 2016, 9: 1285–1293. © 2016 International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1285-1293
Number of pages9
JournalAutism Research
Issue number12
Early online date21 Mar 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2016


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