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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