Royal Society Publishing

Autonomic responses of autistic children to people and objects

William Hirstein, Portia Iversen, V. S. Ramachandran


Several recent lines of inquiry have pointed to the amygdala as a potential lesion site in autism. Because one function of the amygdala may be to produce autonomic arousal at the sight of a significant face, we compared the responses of autistic children to their mothers' face and to a plain paper cup. Unlike normals, the autistic children as a whole did not show a larger response to the person than to the cup. We also monitored sympathetic activity in autistic children as they engaged in a wide range of everyday behaviours. The children tended to use self–stimulation activities in order to calm hyper–responsive activity of the sympathetic (‘fight or flight’) branch of the autonomic nervous system. A small percentage of our autistic subjects had hyporesponsive sympathetic activity, with essentially no electrodermal responses except to self–injurious behaviour. We sketch a hypothesis about autism according to which autistic children use overt behaviour in order to control a malfunctioning autonomic nervous system and suggest that they have learned to avoid using certain processing areas in the temporal lobes.

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