Royal Society Publishing

Autonomic responses of autistic children to people and objects

William Hirstein, Portia Iversen, V. S. Ramachandran

Abstract

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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