Heart rate variability during a joint attention task in toddlers with autism spectrum disorders

Lucia Billeci, Alessandro Tonacci, Antonio Narzisi, Zaira Manigrasso, Maurizio Varanini, Francesca Fulceri, Caterina Lattarulo, Sara Calderoni, Filippo Muratori

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are a heterogeneous group of neurodevelopmental disorders featuring early impairments in social domain, with autonomic nervous system (ANS) unbalance possibly representing a useful marker for such disturbances. Impairments in joint attention (JA) are one of the earliest markers of social deficits in ASD. In this study, we assessed the feasibility of using wearable technologies for characterizing the ANS response in ASD toddlers during the presentation of JA stimuli. Methods: Twenty ASD toddlers and 20 age- and gender-matched typically developed (TD) children were recorded at baseline and during a JA task through an unobtrusive chest strap for electrocardiography (ECG). Specific algorithms for feature extraction, including Heart Rate (HR), Standard Deviation of the Normal-to-Normal Intervals (SDNN), Coefficient of Variation (CV), pNN10 as well as low frequency (LF) and high frequency (HF), were applied to the ECG signal and a statistical comparison between the two groups was performed. Results: As regards the single phases, SDNN (p = 0.04) and CV (p = 0.021) were increased in ASD at baseline together with increased LF absolute power (p = 0.034). Moreover, CV remained higher in ASD during the task (p = 0.03). Considering the phase and group interaction, LF increased from baseline to task in TD group (p = 0.04) while it decreased in the ASD group (p = 0.04). Conclusions: The results of this study indicate the feasibility of characterizing the ANS response in ASD toddlers through a minimally obtrusive tool. Our analysis showed an increased SDNN and CV in toddlers with ASD particularly at baseline compared to TD and lower LF during the task. These findings could suggest the possibility of using the proposed approach for evaluating physiological correlates of JA response in young children with ASD.

Original languageEnglish
Article number467
JournalFrontiers in Physiology
Issue numberMAY
Publication statusPublished - May 1 2018


  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Autonomic nervous system
  • Eye-tracking
  • Joint attention
  • Wearable sensors

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Physiology (medical)


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