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Introduction: Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have neurobiological origins but the exact nature of these brain dysfunctions has not been yet fully elucidated. Children with autism have difficulties in processing social and emotional stimuli, imitating body movements or interpreting relational gestures. These difficulties suggest as candidate factors related to autistic symptomatology, a specialised brain system involved in the mechanisms of social cognition, consisting in the medial temporal lobe (MTL) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC).
Objective: Our research examines whether young children with autism are impaired on neuropsychological tasks and also if the performance on such neurocognitive tasks can be correlated with joint attention ability (JAT).
Methods: Three groups of children – with autism, with intellectual disability and with typical development, matched according to the mental age (calculated with the Fairview development scale, Giampiccolo & Boroskin, 1974) were administered neurocognitive and joint attention tests and procedures.
Results: The results showed that only the MTL-VMPFC task performances were strongly correlated with the JAT behavior, while the dorsolateral prefrontal (DLPFC) ones were not.
Conclusion: Our findings suggest that the VMPFC is involved in the development of JAT mechanisms. We found no correlation between the performance in tasks related to JAT behavior and the DLPFC factor. This means that autism is not associated, at least at young ages, with a unique pattern of poor executive functioning, so this dimension cannot be used as an indicator for the early diagnosis of autism.