Attentional Capture By Angry Faces and Angry Voices Is Associated with Intensity of Fear Induced By Real-World Challenges in Toddlers with ASD

Oral Presentation
Friday, May 11, 2018: 11:45 AM
Jurriaanse Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
K. Chawarska1, F. Shic2, Q. Wang1, A. Vernetti1, D. Macris1 and S. Macari1, (1)Child Study Center, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, (2)Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development, Seattle Children's Research Institute, Seattle, WA
Background: Behavioral and neurophysiological evidence suggests that biologically-relevant stimuli such as facial expressions (Vuilleumier & Schwart, 2001) and emotionally-valenced sounds (Ethofer et al., 2006) are prioritized in the attentional system as reflected by their enhanced capacity to capture attention. Rapid detection of emotional signals is thought to be affected in ASD, though evidence remains scant and conflicting, particularly in the early developmental stages. Here we examine, for the first time, attention capture by threatening stimuli presented through visual (static faces) and auditory channels (nonsense phrases) in toddlers with ASD and typically-developing (TD) controls. We also examine, for the first time, direct links between attention capture by threat and intensity of fear response during real-world challenges.

Objectives: To examine if attentional capture by threatening stimuli in visual and auditory domains are associated with intensity of fear response during real-world challenges as well as with severity of autism symptoms and verbal and nonverbal developmental quotient in toddlers with ASD and TD controls.

Methods: Toddlers with ASD (n=29) and age-matched TD (n=29) toddlers (Mean age=23 mo, SD=4) participated in an eye-tracking study investigating attentional capture by threatening stimuli. The toddlers completed a preferential looking paradigm in which their latency to orient to static angry faces (Face condition) and angry voices (Voice condition) were measured. Toddlers also completed a series of real-world behavioral fear-inducing probes adapted from the Laboratory Temperament Assessment Battery (LabTAB, Goldsmith et al., 1999). Ratings of peak intensity fear responses were coded offline by a blind rater. Subsequently, we evaluated correlations between latency to orient to threat and intensity of fearful emotions during the challenges.

Results: The groups did not differ in the latency to orient to angry faces (p=.467) or angry nonsense phrases (p=.566). In the combined groups, the latency to orient to the threatening targets was not associated with severity of autism symptoms, or with verbal or nonverbal DQ in either condition (all p-values>.4). However, there were significant correlations between the intensity of fearful behavioral responses during the Lab-TAB probes and latency to orient to angry voices (r(54)=-.32, p=.020) and faces (r(26)=.45, p=.023).

Conclusions: This is the first study to report on associations between attention capture by threatening information conveyed through visual and auditory channels and intensity of negative affect in response to real-world fear-inducing challenges. Latency to orient to threat was not associated with severity of autism symptoms or levels of verbal or nonverbal functioning. However, children who responded with more intense fear tended to orient faster to angry voices and slower to angry faces. The mechanisms underlying this disparity are not known, but they may be related to differences in temporal structure of the stimuli or to differences in neural networks involved in processing emotional signals in visual and auditory modalities. Data collection for this project is ongoing and we plan to examine these questions in greater detail. These findings provide novel insights into threat processing and the complex associations between affective attention and emotional expression in very young children with and without ASD.