Contributions of Affective States and Traits to Autistic Features

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This thesis considered the role of affect and reward in autistic features, based on the important role affective brain systems play in emotion and motivated behaviors known to be impacted in autistic individuals. I directly tested multiple affect-based hypotheses in children with and without an autism diagnosis and aimed to inform future clinical work by exploring several methodologies for examining both inter-individual (trait) and intra-individual (state) variation in measures of affect and reward. I first examined multiple behavioral domains (reward sensitivity, anxiety symptoms, and executive function) for associations with interest intensity in early childhood autism. I report that the executive functioning domain of attention shifting associated with interest intensity in early childhood, while there was no relation with general sensitivity to reward and anxiety symptoms. I then considered how to better characterize inter-individuality in reward sensitivity during early childhood, specifically regarding social rewards. I therefore developed and validated the Social Reward Questionnaire–Early Childhood (SRQ-EC) to quantify wanting and liking of distinctly rewarding social situations in young children. I found that autistic-like traits in a community sample associated with reduced wanting and liking of social rewards, particularly for large group interactions, suggesting potential utility of the SRQ-EC for future autism research. I additionally considered a protocol for investigating brain functional connectivity for associations with intra-individual affect variation in a community sample of adults, with relevance for designing future studies to examine neurobiological mechanisms of affective disorders that commonly co-occur in autism. My work replicates recent findings that variance in functional connectivity is largely attributable to individual identity, and that variance attributable to intra-individual affect variation is 7–100x smaller than what can be attributed to viewing condition. This thesis advances methodologies for measuring and modeling both inter- and intra-individual variation in autism, specifically in relation to affective processes which are difficult to measure in a laboratory setting. The methods presented and refined here could be used in future work to better understand state- and trait-like features in autism.
Autism, Affect, Reward, Measurement, fMRI
Godfrey, K. J. (2024). Contributions of affective states and traits to autistic features (Doctoral thesis, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada). Retrieved from