Attenuated Attentional and Behavioral Vigilance Towards Nonsocial Threats in Preschoolers with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Poster Presentation
Thursday, May 2, 2019: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
C. D. Ramsey1, E. Hilton2, G. Greco3, C. D. Gershman1, K. Joseph1, H. Neiderman1, C. Nutor1, N. Powell1, K. Villarreal1, E. Yhang1, S. Fontenelle1, K. K. Powell1, T. Tsang1, S. Macari1, K. Chawarska1 and A. Vernetti1, (1)Child Study Center, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, (2)University of Wisconsin - Madison, Madison, WI, (3)University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Background: Approximately forty percent of children with ASD experience anxiety (vanSteensel et al., 2011). While children diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder show an attentional bias to threatening stimuli (Waters, Bradley, & Mogg, 2013), it is not clear if children with ASD also exhibit attentional biases for threat and physical avoidance patterns observed in non-ASD individuals. Prior work has revealed attenuated facial and vocal expressions of fear (Macari et al., 2018) as well as attenuated physiological arousal (Vernetti et al., 2018) in response to nonsocial real-world threatening situations in toddlers with ASD. Based on these findings showing attenuated fear response towards nonsocial threats in toddlers with ASD, we hypothesize that preschoolers with ASD will show less attentional vigilance and more physical approach when facing real-life nonsocial threatening situations.

Objectives: To examine attentional vigilance and approach-avoidant behaviors towards several nonsocial threats in preschoolers with ASD compared to non-ASD preschoolers.

Methods: 110 preschoolers (44 preschoolers with ASD: M=40.3mo, SD=3.5, 91%males, 17 age-matched preschoolers with developmental delay (DD): M=40.1mo, SD=3.1, 47%males, and 49 typically-developing preschoolers (TD): M=38.6mo, SD=2.5, 53%males)) were administered three fear-eliciting tasks (crawling spider, scary mask, animated Halloween monster hand) based on the Laboratory Temperament Assessment Battery (Lab-TAB; Goldsmith & Rothbart,1999). Indices of attentional vigilance to threat (proportion of looking time to the threat) and physical-approach behaviors (proportion of body movements towards the threat) were rated offline by blinded coders and averaged across the three episodes.

Results: A multivariate GLM revealed a marginal effect of diagnosis for attention to threat (F(2,107)=2.45, p=.092,ηp2=.04) and significant effect of diagnosis for physical approach towards the threat (F(2,107)=6.73, p=.002, ηp2=.11) . Planned comparisons confirmed that preschoolers with ASD spend less time looking at the threat than their TD (p=.030) peers. Additionally, compared to their peers, preschoolers with ASD spent more time approaching the threat (vs.TD (p=.001) and vs.DD (p=.031)). TD and DD groups did not differ from each other in attention to threat or approach behaviors (all ps>.568) (see Figure1).

Conclusions: Results indicated that attentional vigilance and approach-avoidant behaviors in preschoolers with ASD are atypical. Indeed, preschoolers with ASD looked less at nonsocial threats compared to their typically developing peers and spent more time approaching nonsocial threats compared to peers with typical development and developmental delay. This attenuated vigilant response towards threat in preschoolers with ASD corroborate previous findings of attenuated emotional and physiological responses to threatening stimuli. Given that heightened fear and vigilance are usually linked with the development of anxiety in the general population, our findings highlight the need to further investigate the prospective relationships between early fear and later anxiety symptoms in children with ASD.