Date of Award

Spring 2021

Degree Type




Director of Thesis

Dr. Abigail Hogan

Second Reader

Dr. Joshua Tebbs


There is strong evidence that atypical attention patterns are robust indicators of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in young children. Additionally, anxiety disorders are very prevalent in ASD populations, though the role of anxiety in modulating social attention and threat bias is unclear in children with ASD. While eye gaze methods are typically utilized to measure attention, physiological methods have been deemed a reliable and complementary way to characterize attentional states. As patterns of autonomic dysregulation have been identified in studies of ASD, the use of physiological measures (i.e., heart rate defined sustained attention) is intriguing. The primary goal of the present study was to build upon the visual (eye gaze) and physiological (HRDSA) profiles of attention in children with ASD. The second goal of the study was to clarify the relationship between attention and anxiety in ASD. Participants of this study included 36 preschool-aged children with ASD and 26 typically developing (TD) children. ASD symptomology was evaluated through the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule-2 (ADOS-2), while anxiety severity was measured with the Spence Preschool Anxiety Scale (SPAS). Results showed that young children with ASD exhibited reduced gaze towards a stranger in comparison to TD controls; and while anxiety was associated with increased eye gaze in the ASD group, the opposite pattern was found in the TD group. Additionally, while eye gaze and HRDSA methods yielded similar results in the TD group, children with ASD spent considerably more time in HRDSA than they did looking at the stranger. These findings suggest that anxiety may impact attention differently in children with ASD. The observed significant correlation between HRDSA and ASD severity highlights the complex physiological nature of the disorder and calls for continued study of physiological attention in young ASD populations.

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