Objectives: To investigate the relationship between anxiety symptoms and physiological response, as measured by eye blink intensity (electromyographic activity; EMG) and skin conductance level (SCL) during a fear potentiated startle paradigm, among adolescents with ASD and typically developing adolescents; and, to determine whether this relationship differs as a function of group.
Methods: Twenty adolescents (ages 13-17.5 years) with ASD and 22 typically developing adolescents underwent diagnostic and cognitive assessment as part of the Autism Center of Excellence study at the University of Washington. Presence of anxiety symptoms was assessed using parent-report (Child Behavior Checklist) and child-report (Revised Children’s Manifest Anxiety Scale). Eyeblink response (EMG) and SCL were collected during a fear potentiated startle paradigm. The relationship between symptoms of anxiety and physiological response was investigated for both groups using hierarchical linear modeling.
Results: As expected, adolescents with ASD displayed significantly more anxiety symptoms than typically developing adolescents. No group differences were found in overall SCL or EMG response over time, or baseline SCL. Both groups showed potentiated conditioning according to EMG, evidenced by larger response to threatening stimuli. However, only teens with ASD demonstrated this enhanced physiological response based on SCL. For individuals with ASD, higher levels of reported anxiety symptoms were associated with larger initial and overall EMG response, which tended to decrease over time.
Conclusions: Findings suggest that adolescents with ASD with high reported levels of anxiety symptoms exhibit enhanced physiological response compared to typically developing teens, most likely reflecting hyper-responsivity of the amygdala. This propensity for hyperarousal may contribute to the expression of anxiety in individuals with ASD.
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