Children with Autism Have Atypical Stress Response

A large number of children with autism (ASD) also have comorbid psychological conditions. Anxiety is one of the most common comorbid issues that ASD children experience. The risk for anxiety in ASD can be explained by a number of factors. First, ASD children have challenges interacting with others due to impaired communications skills. They also often display repetitive behaviors and other unusual manifestations that set them apart from their peers. These factors can cause isolation and social difficulties that can exacerbate anxiety in children with ASD. However, the traditional methods of gauging stress response in anxiety, which include self-reports and observer reports, can be distorted in children with ASD because of the lack of emotional self-awareness and unique behaviors they possess. Because of the high rates of anxiety in ASD, Azedeh Kushki of the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitations Hospital in Canada wanted to test whether or not physiological markers could provide accurate evidence of stress responses in children with anxiety and ASD.

In a recent study, Kushki measured changes in the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to determine stress response in a sample of 15 children with autism and 18 children without (TD). By measuring cardiac activity, perspiration, and skin temperature, Kushki was able to find some critical differences in the stress responses between the two groups of children. First, the ASD participants had increased cardiac activity during a neutral condition (baseline) and during the anxiety induction test (stress cue), while the TD group only had increased heart rate during the stress cue. Additionally, the ASD participants had muted perspiration responses and minimal change in skin temperature during the stress task, which is not a typical stress response.

Kushki believes these results show that ASD can contribute to over-arousal of sympathetic nervous system activity and under-arousal of parasympathetic nervous system responses. In other words, in this study, the children with ASD demonstrated atypical responses to the stressful tasks and had higher levels of anxiety when compared to the TD participants. Of interest was the finding that children with higher IQs had more severe stress responses and higher levels of anxiety. Perhaps their intelligence makes them more aware of their impairments and/or allows them to more effectively express their anxiety than children with lower IQs. Finally, Kushki believes that the findings of this study provide support for the use of physiological indicators as measures of anxiety and stress response in children with ASD. Kushki added, “Future studies are needed to pinpoint the underlying mechanisms in the central and peripheral nervous systems that may contribute to this atypical response.”

Kushki A, Drumm E, Pla Mobarak M, Tanel N, Dupuis A, et al. (2013). Investigating the autonomic nervous system response to anxiety in children with autism spectrum disorders. PLoS ONE 8(4): e59730. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059730

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Peyton

    April 18th, 2013 at 11:34 AM

    There are simply so many things about autism that continue to baffle us all.
    My cousin has a child who was perfectly fine up until the age of 18 months and then she slowly began to withdraw into herself. I know that her mom and dad ask themselves every day what they could have done differently to prevent it, but it seems there is no science yet that can tell them that.
    It does give me hope that there seems to be more attention being given to this in addition to research and funding but we can’t stop until we have all of the answers for these families living with this.

  • Gary

    April 18th, 2013 at 12:36 PM

    Anxiety can get the best of us. No matter the confidence or self belief levels once anxiety sets in all that will count for nothing. One thing I would like to know here is – is the anxiety a result of ASD or is it the anxiety a result of the children knowing their conditions and thus being nervous? that is, is it a natural occurrence due to ASD or a self-induced one?

  • Polly

    April 19th, 2013 at 1:09 AM

    I have a general question about Autism: why are so many kids diagnosed with this these days? When I was growing up (I’m 39), no one had ever even heard of Autism, and now it seems like 25% of kids are diagnosed with some form of it. Were these kids always present and we just didn’t label them? Is it really progress to find a label for a child? Is it helpful in anyway? Okay, so I guess I have more than one question!

  • joe

    April 19th, 2013 at 1:12 AM

    can’t even imagine the anxiety adn stress these kids feel when they are so different from other kids.

    it seems liek it would be so unfair to have one disorder like asd and then all the sudden now you have to deal with anxiety too.

    why cant these kids catch a break. it seems like too much for one kids to have to edal with.

  • Gretta

    April 19th, 2013 at 1:16 AM

    Okay, yeah, I definitely see this in my six year old son who is Autistic. Man, the anxiety that kid has at bed time is unreal. We finally had to get an alarm for his bedroom door so we’d know if he got out of his room at night cuz one night we found him in the car…with the keys! I am sympathetic to his anxiety, but it is hard to be the best parent in the world when you have to function on two hours of sleep cuz he can’t sleep at night and you have a full time job. Calgon, take me away!

  • Hank F.

    April 19th, 2013 at 1:17 AM

    Autism is no fun for anyone-parent or child. Period.

  • Margaret

    April 19th, 2013 at 1:19 AM

    I teach kids with Autism at an elementary school. It is unbelievable how mean kids can be. I wish for one day these kids could walk a mile in my kids’ shoes. They’d have so much more understanding. I just can’t figure out how to help the other kids see that my kids have a lot to offer and would be really fun to hang out with. The other kids just can’t see past the differences and are only willing to look at the outside of the kids rather than the inside. Society is not in the greatest shape.

  • morgan

    April 20th, 2013 at 12:54 PM

    a child who is autistic- how would you know if they are experiencing anxiety? would they be able to tell you that or would a parent just know via their actions?

  • Tommi

    December 15th, 2016 at 11:28 PM

    A child with autism will have a “normal range” of behavior. That is, behavior that is typical for them, as individuals. When that behavior changes, it can be linked to many reasons, including secret abuse. We must protect these defenseless people from being cared for by bad caregivers.

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