Date of Completion


Embargo Period



visual attention, autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder

Major Advisor

Inge-Marie Eigsti, Ph.D.

Associate Advisor

Deborah Fein, Ph.D.

Associate Advisor

Kerry Marsh, Ph.D.

Field of Study



Doctor of Philosophy

Open Access

Open Access


Social participation requires the processing and utilization of visual information and early interactions with the environment can shape neurological development, setting children on a typical or atypical developmental trajectory. In the case of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), early manifestations of atypical visual, social attention (i.e., joint attention) are one of the earliest markers of atypical development and one of the most influential processes contributing to development in other domains (e.g., language). The current study aimed to assess multiple aspects of low-level visual attention, through a modified Posner-paradigm, that may contribute to social behavior and social cognition. Behavioral reaction time (RT) and eye-movements were tracked through an experimental task, for individuals (ages 8 to 18 years) with typical development (TD), ASD, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), to measure how participants perceived and responded to directionally-meaningful visual information; social functioning was measured using standardized and experimental assessments of social behavior and cognition. Behavioral results indicated that the ASD group demonstrated more difficulty overriding and reallocating their attention when it was directed to an incorrect location; this finding was exaggerated for non-social (arrow) cues, but decreased for social (face) cues, when compared to their TD peers. Evidence also suggested reduced attentional engagement in the visual cues, as supported by both RT and eye-tracking evidence, when comparing the ASD group to both comparison groups. The contributions of social salience, response salience, and visual-field laterality were also assessed. The ADHD group, despite characteristic variability in RT, performed most similarly to their TD peers. The results from this study indicate that reduced engagement in visual information may limit individuals with ASD’s ability to identify relevant visual stimuli and that, once engaged, individuals with ASD may struggle to use this information to efficiently modify their behavioral response. Encouragingly, once attention is engaged, individuals with ASD appear able to interpret the directional cues as meaningful. These findings in the context of a controlled, experimental paradigm are likely exacerbated in the complex, dynamic nature of real-life social situations and implications for early intervention were discussed.