Social Stress and Autonomic Arousal in Young, High-Functioning Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Poster Presentation
Thursday, May 10, 2018: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
R. Dijkhuis1, H. Swaab2, W. G. Staal3, S. Van Rijn4 and T. Ziermans5, (1)University of Leiden, Leiden, Netherlands, (2)Leiden University, Leiden, Netherlands, (3)Institute for Brain and Cognition, Leiden University, Leiden, Netherlands, (4)Leiden University, Leiden, Leiden, Netherlands, (5)University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Background: Despite the hypothesized link between autonomic self-regulation and the social difficulties seen in many individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD; Klusek et al., 2014; Neuhaus et al., 2014; Smeekens), little is known about autonomic reactivity to socially stressful situations in young adults with ASD.

Objectives: To examine whether young adults with ASD show deviating autonomic regulation during social stress, and whether it is related to their subjective experience of stress.

Methods: During social stress we compared autonomic arousal, gaze behavior and subjective experience between young adults with high-functioning ASD (HFASD; N = 53) and their typically developing (TD) peers (N = 31). Heart rate and skin conductance were measured as indicators of sympathetic and parasympathetic functioning of the autonomic nervous system. Gaze behavior was indicated by eye tracking (fixation duration in seconds) for multiple customized areas of interest. Additionally, participants were asked to report on experienced stress during the task.

Results: Compared to their TD peers, the HFASD individuals showed less reactivity in heart rate variability (HRV) and lower sympathetic activation (skin conductance level) during social stress, while displaying similar gaze behavior and subjective. However, contrary to TD controls, the experience of stress was not related to task-induced arousal in HFASD individuals. No significant differences in gaze behavior and relations between gaze behavior and autonomic arousal were detected.

Conclusions: Our results suggest reduced awareness of arousal and less regulation of arousal during socially stressful events in young adults with HFASD compared to TD peers. These results add to the existing literature in showing that deviant functioning of the ANS might be key in the stress regulation problems seen in so many individuals with autism, also in young adults with HFASD. These conclusions pertain important implications for daily life and give insight in the role of stress regulation in adaptive social behavior.