An investigation of joint attention in autism spectrum disorders and the broader autism continuum

  • Gillian Little

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Deficits in joint attention (JA) are among the key characteristics of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Successful joint attention involves responding to (RJA) and initiating (IJA) joint attention with another person to coordinate attention to the referent object. Eye gaze is one of the most important social cues for RJA (e.g. following gaze to an object) and IJA (e.g. looking towards an object). This thesis aims to explore gaze following and the effects of RJA and IJA in children with ASD, typically developing children and typically developing adults with higher and lower levels of autistic traits. Three studies measuring eye movements and cognitive processing during cueing tasks and simulated joint attention tasks are reported. The first study uses gaze and arrow cueing tasks to investigate the relationship between autistic traits and overt visual orienting to gaze cues in the typical population. The following two studies use a novel gaze contingent computer avatar to investigate how children with and without ASD and adults with high and low levels of autistic traits both respond to and initiate joint attention. Participants gaze behavior as they respond to the avatar’s gaze shift (RJA) and direct the avatar’s gaze (IJA) towards a referent image is measured and compared. The effect of RJA and IJA on memory for the referent image is explored. Findings suggest that individuals with high and low levels of autistic traits do not differ in how the referent image is remembered in RJA and IJA conditions. Rather, they may show subtle differences in laterality during reflexive visual orienting to rapidly presented gaze cues. Children with and without ASD varied in how they viewed the referent image in the JA interaction with the avatar. In comparison to the typically developing children, those with ASD looked for less time at the referent image and their memory for it was poorer. Overall, this thesis contributes to our understanding of joint attention and social information processing in ASD and along the broader autism continuum. This thesis also brings several important considerations for future experimental paradigms for the study of joint attention and gaze in ASD.
Date of Award30 Aug 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University Of Strathclyde
SupervisorStephen Kelly (Supervisor) & Lizann Bonnar (Supervisor)

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