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Background: Although aberrant visual attention has been identified in infants at high familial risk for autism, the developmental emergence of atypical attention remains unclear. Integrating biological measures of attention into prospective high-risk infant studies may inform more nuanced developmental trajectories, clarifying the onset and course of atypical attention and potentially advancing early screening or treatment protocols. Heart rate-defined sustained attention (HRDSA) is a well-validated biological measure of attentional engagement that, in non-clinical infant populations, provides incremental information about attentional engagement beyond looking behaviors alone. The present study aimed to examine the characteristics and clinical correlates of HRDSA in high-risk infants, informing whether HRDSA may operate as a promising biological measure of attention and clinical symptoms in this population. Methods: We examined age-related patterns of HRDSA during a passive looking task in 5- to 14-month-old high-risk infant siblings of children with autism (n = 21) compared to low-risk controls (n = 21), with most participants contributing multiple assessments. Emergent autism features were measured using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule at 24 months. Primary dependent variables included the proportion of time in behavioral attention, proportion of time in HRDSA, and average heart rate deceleration during HRDSA. For each variable, we used nested multilevel models to examine whether attention differed by group, as well as whether attention predicted emergent autism features among high-risk infant siblings. Results: As expected, HRDSA served as a global biological measure of attention in high-risk infants, predicting greater variability in group risk status than behavioral looking alone. Among high-risk infants, more severe ASD features were also associated with increasingly shallow heart rate deceleration during HRDSA across development, suggesting abnormal qualities of HRDSA may inform individual differences within this population. Conclusions: These preliminary findings provide initial evidence that HRDSA may offer a sensitive, affordable, and portable biological measure of attention that may enhance understanding of atypical attention in high-risk infants. Using this method, we also provide initial evidence that atypical patterns of heart activity previously reported in children and adults with autism may emerge in the first year of life, warranting further study of how HRDSA may specifically inform attention profiles in ASD.

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© The Author(s). 2018 Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.

APA Citation

Tonnsen, B. L., Richards, J. E., & Roberts, J. E. (2018). Heart Rate-Defined Sustained Attention in Infants at Risk for Autism. Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, 10(1), 7.

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