Grace Baranek PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA
Research Lab: Innovations in Neurodevelopmental Sensory Processing Research (insp!re)
Neurophysiological (EEG/ERP) and psychophysiological (cardiac and electrodermal activity, pupillometry) underlying mechanisms of sensory reactivity and restricted and repetitive behaviors in autistic children and infants with increased likelihood for autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
in Developmental Psychology
2022 | City University of New York
Master of Science (MSc)
in Developmental Psychology
2021 | City University of New York
Bachelor of Arts (BA)
in Psychology and Education
2015 | Ben Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), Israel
Soker-Elimaliah, S., Lehrfield, A., Scarano, S. R., & Wagner, J. B. (2023). Associations between the pupil light reflex and the broader autism phenotype in children and adults. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 16, 1052604. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2022.1052604 Show abstract
The pupil light reflex (PLR), a marker of neuronal response to light, is a well-studied index of autonomic functioning. Studies have found that autistic children and adults have slower and weaker PLR responses compared to non-autistic peers, suggesting lower autonomic control. Altered autonomic control has also been associated with increased sensory difficulties in autistic children. With autistic traits varying in the general population, recent studies have begun to examine similar questions in non-autistic individuals. The current study looked at the PLR in relation to individual differences in autistic traits in non-autistic children and adults, asking how differences in the PLR could lead to variation in autistic traits, and how this might change across development. Children and adults completed a PLR task as a measure of sensitivity to light and autonomic response. Results showed that, in adults, increased levels of restricted and repetitive behaviors (RRB) were associated with a weaker and slower PLR. However, in children, PLR responses were not associated with autistic traits. Differences in PLR were also found across age groups, with adults showing smaller baseline pupil diameter and stronger PLR constriction as compared with children. The current study expanded on past work to examine the PLR and autistic traits in non-autistic children and adults, and the relevance of these findings to sensory processing difficulties is discussed. Future studies should continue to examine the neural pathways that might underlie the links between sensory processing and challenging behaviors.
Soker-Elimaliah, S., Jennings, C. A., Hashimi, M. M., Cassim, T. Z., Lehrfield, A., & Wagner, J. B. (2020). Autistic traits moderate relations between cardiac autonomic activity, interoceptive accuracy, and emotion processing in college students. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 155, 118-126. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2020.04.005 Show abstract
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) plays a key role in maintaining physiological homeostasis, and research with neurotypical and autistic individuals has found relations between cardiac autonomic responses, as well as awareness of one's cardiac responses, and social and emotional processing. The current study examined relations between cardiac autonomic activity, heartbeat perception, emotion processing, and levels of autistic traits in a group of college students. Cardiac ANS at baseline and during an emotional picture task was measured, and a heartbeat perception task was used to assess interoceptive accuracy (IA). Questionnaires then assessed autistic traits, alexithymia (difficulties processing one's own emotions), and emotion recognition. Consistent with past work, greatest heart rate deceleration was seen in response to negative images. In the overall sample, no correlations were found between cardiac ANS, IA, autistic traits, and aspects of emotion processing, but when examining individuals high and low on autistic traits separately, distinct associations were found. Within the group of participants with elevated autistic traits, greater baseline respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) was predictive of lower levels of alexithymia and autistic traits, as well as higher IA, but these associations were not seen in participants low on autistic traits. These findings suggest that variability in autistic traits in a non-autistic sample can lead to differential relations between cardiac autonomic responses, awareness of one's cardiac responses, and emotion processing.