Stimulus Overselectivity and Contingency Analyses of Observing and Attending in Intellectual Disabilities

Focus of Attention

Research funded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

Previous support: R01HD037055 and P01HD025995

Current support: R01HD062582 and P01HD025995-S1

William Dube

This line of research addresses the problem of stimulus overselectivity in individuals who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. Overselectivity refers to maladaptive narrow attending that is a common learning problem in children with intellectual disabilities (reviews in Lovaas et al., 1979; Dube, 2009). From a behavior-analytic perspective, it is described as an atypical limitation in the range, breadth, or number of controlling stimuli or stimulus features. The problem has been described from other perspectives in terms of relatively specific deficits in enlarging the spotlight of attention, disengaging attention, global vs. local visual information processing, and more generally as weak central coherence. In special education the problem may be manifested, for example, when students learn to identify printed words or other similar arrays of characters on the basis of the initial letter only.

Research findings to date include the following:

  • The specific stimuli that exert stimulus control in cases of overselectivity can be predicted and modified by manipulating reinforcement contingencies (Dube & McIlvane, 1997).

  • Overselectivity may be reduced for some individuals if redundancy in stimulus-reinforcer relations is eliminated (Dube, 1997).

  • Direct assessments of observing behavior conducted in the IDDRC Eye Tracking Facility show that overselectivity is accompanied by deficient observing behavior. Deficits include failures to observe all relevant stimuli and atypically brief observing durations (Dube et al., 1999; 2003; 2010).

  • Interventions that eliminate deficits in observing, either by modifications to the stimuli or by imposing contingencies on observing behavior, may also eliminate overselective responding (Dube et al., 2010). These results indicate that overselectivity need not reflect a central attention deficit and is at least partially correctable through training.

  • In a few cases, however, improvements in observing were not accompanied by improved discrimination accuracy – apparent instances of observing without attending; accuracy improved to high levels only after an additional intervention that imposed contingencies on observing behavior topography (Dube et al., 2010).

  • For remediation, differential observing responses may be useful to control observing behavior and verify discrimination of all relevant stimuli or stimulus elements. Overselectivity may be greatly reduced if task requirements are changed to require differential observing responses (Dube, 2009; Dube & McIlvane, 1999; Walpole et al., 2007).

Objectives of current research project:

  • Determine whether an ASD diagnosis is related to increased prevalence or severity of overselective stimulus control with stimuli including typical AAC icons, photos of faces, printed words, and arrays of unfamiliar forms at different levels of complexity.

  • Determine whether overselectivity in ASD is related to a deficit in disengagement of attention and/or indifference to perceptual coherence of stimuli, relative to other diagnostic groups. These studies will be conducted in the IDDRC Eye Tracking Facility.

  • Determine whether ASD impedes learning to benefit from a potentially helpful remedial intervention based on the differential observing response technique.

  • Determine whether an ASD diagnosis is related to the course of intervention with differential observing response procedures.

  • Determine whether strategic manipulations of reinforcement parameters will identify and ameliorate overselectivity that emerges from attentional biases interacting with the uncontrolled reinforcement contingencies of typically special-education teaching procedures. This objective will bring well-established behavior-analytic quantitative models of attention to bear on the problem of overselectivity.

  • Initiate a series of applied studies using single-subject designs to examine generalization and durability of differential observing response interventions in special-education classrooms.


Dube, W. V., Dickson, C. A., Balsamo, L. M., O’Donnell, K. L., Tomanari, G. Y., Farren, K. M., Wheeler, E. E., & McIlvane, W. J. (2010). Observing behavior and atypically restricted stimulus control. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior,  94, 297-313.

Dube, W. V. (2009). Stimulus overselectivity in discrimination learning. In P. Reed (Ed.), Behavioral theories and interventions for autism (pp. 23-46). New York: Nova Science Publishers.

Walpole, C. W., Roscoe, E. M., & Dube, W. V. (2007). Use of a differential observing response to expand restricted stimulus control. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 40, 707-712. PMCID2078580

Dickson, C. A., Deutsch, C. K., Wang, S. S., & Dube, W. V. (2006). Matching-to-sample assessment of stimulus overselectivity in students with intellectual disabilities. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 111, 447-453.

Dickson, C. A., Wang, S. S., Lombard, K. M., & Dube, W. V. (2006). Overselective stimulus control in residential school students with intellectual disabilities. Research and Intervention in Developmental Disabilities, 27, 618-631. doi: 10.1016/j.ridd.2005.07.004

Dube, W. V., Balsamo, L. M., Fowler, T. R., Dickson, C. A., Lombard, K. M., & Tomanari, G. Y. (2006). Observing behavior topography in delayed matching to multiple samples. The Psychological Record, 56, 233-244.

Dube, W. V., Lombard, K. M., Farren, K. M., Flusser, D. S., Balsamo, L. M., Fowler, T. R., & Tomanari, G. Y. (2003). Stimulus overselectivity and observing behavior in individuals with mental retardation. In S. Soraci & K. Murata-Soraci (Eds.), Visual Information Processing (pp. 109-123). Westport, CT: Praeger.

Dube, W. V., Lombard, K. M., Farren, K. M., Flusser, D. S., Balsamo, L. M., & Fowler, T. R. (1999). Eye tracking assessment of stimulus overselectivity in individuals with mental retardation. Experimental Analysis of Human Behavior Bulletin, 17, 8-14.

Dube, W. V. & McIlvane, W. J. (1999). Reduction of stimulus overselectivity with nonverbal differential observing responses. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 32, 25-33.

Dube, W. V. (1997). Restricted stimulus control and stimulus-reinforcer relations. Experimental Analysis of Human Behavior Bulletin, 15, 8-11.

Dube, W. V. & McIlvane, W. J. (1997). Reinforcer frequency and restricted stimulus control. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 68, 303-316.