Sympathetic Under-Arousal and Externalizing Behavior Problems in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) commonly exhibit co-occurring externalizing behavior problems, which can impede learning opportunities and contribute significantly to caregiver stress. Substantial theory and research has linked under-arousal of the sympathetic nervous system to increased externalizing problems in children without ASD, but under-arousal has not been considered as an explanatory mechanism for individual differences among children with ASD. We tested the notion that lower electrodermal activity (EDA) would predict more externalizing problems in children with ASD, and considered the degree to which parent co-regulatory support could buffer this risk. Forty children with ASD between the ages of 4 and 11 years and their primary caregivers participated in a laboratory visit that included various play, compliance, and problem-solving regulatory tasks. EDA was measured through wireless wrist sensors, parental scaffolding was observed during a dyadic problem-solving task, and parents rated their children’s externalizing behavior problems. As predicted, low EDA during the compliance-oriented tasks directly predicted higher child externalizing problems. Parental scaffolding moderated the link between under-arousal during the problem-solving regulatory tasks and externalizing problems such that the relation was observed in the context of low, but not high, support. Implications for relevant theories (e.g., fearlessness theory, stimulation-seeking theory) are discussed, and the potential for psychophysiological patterns to inform intervention with these children is considered.
KeywordsAutism spectrum disorder (ASD) Electrodermal activity Externalizing behavior problems Parental scaffolding Psychophysiology
This project was funded by an intramural faculty grant awarded to the first author and by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (R15HD087877), awarded to the first two authors. Mariann Howland is now at the University of California, Irvine.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.
Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.
- Achenbach, T. M. (2009). The Achenbach system of empirically based assessment (ASEBA): Development, findings, theory, and applications. Burlington: University of Vermont Research Center for Children, Youth, & Families.Google Scholar
- Baker, J. K., Fenning, R. M., Crnic, K. A., Baker, B. L., & Blacher, J. (2007). Prediction of social skills in 6-year-old children with and without developmental delays: Contributions of early regulation and maternal scaffolding. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 112, 375–391. doi: 10.1352/0895-8017(2007)112[0375:POSSIY]2.0.CO;2.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Baker, J. K., Fenning, R. M., Howland, M., Baucom, B. R., Moffitt, J., & Erath, S. A. (2015). Brief report: A pilot study of parent-child biobehavioral synchrony in autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 12, 4140–4146. doi: 10.1007/s10803-015-2528-0.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Beauchaine, T. P., Neuhaus, E., Gatzke-Kopp, L. M., Reid, M. J., Chipman, J., Brekke, A., et al. (2015). Electrodermal responding predicts responses to, and may be altered by, preschool intervention for ADHD. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 83, 293–303. doi: 10.1037/a0038405.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Ben Shalom, D., Mostofsky, S. H., Hazlett, R. L., Goldberg, M. C., Landa, R. J., Faran, Y., et al. (2006). Normal physiological emotions but differences in expression of conscious feelings in children with high-functioning autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36(3), 395–400. doi: 10.1007/s10803-006-0077-2.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Bunford, N., Evans, S. W., Zoccola, P. M., Owens, J. S., Flory, K., & Speil, C. F. (2016). Correspondence between heart rate variability and emotion dysregulation in children, including children with ADHD. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. doi: 10.1007/s10802-016-0257-2 Online ahead of print.
- Christensen, D. L., Baio, J., Braun, K. V. et al. (2016). Prevalence and characteristics of autism spectrum disorder among children aged 8 years – Autism and developmental disabilities monitoring network. MMWR Surveillance Summary for 2012. pp. 1-23. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.ss6503a1.
- Cicchetti, D. (2006). Development and psychopathology. In D. Cicchetti & D. J. Cohen (Eds.), Developmental psychopathology (Vol. 1, 2nd ed., pp. 1–23). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
- Constantino, J. N., & Gruber, C. P. (2012). Social responsiveness scale, second edition (SRS-2). Western Psychological Services: Manual. Los Angeles.Google Scholar
- Dawson, M., Schell, A., & Filion, D. (2000). The electrodermal system. In J. Cacioppo, L. Tassinary, & G. Berntson (Eds.), Handbook of psychophysiology (2nd ed., pp. 200–223). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
- Erath, S. A., El-Sheikh, M., Hinnant, J. B., & Cummings, E. M. (2011). Skin conductance level reactivity moderates the association between harsh parenting and growth in child externalizing behavior. Developmental Psychology, 47, 693–706. doi: 10.1037/a0021909.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
- Fenning, R. M., Baker, J. K., Baucom, B. R., Erath, S. A., Howland, M. A., & Moffitt, J. (2017). Electrodermal activity and symptom severity in children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47, 1062–1072. doi: 10.1007/s10803-016-3021-0.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Georgiades, S., Szatmari, P., Boyle, M., Hanna, S., Duku, E., Zwaigenbaum, L., et al. (2013). Investigating phenotypic heterogeneity in children with autism spectrum disorder: A factor mixture modeling approach. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 54(3), 206–215. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2012.02588.x.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Hill, A. P., Zuckerman, K. E., Hagen, A. D., Kriz, D. J., Duvall, S. Q., van Santen, J., et al. (2014). Aggressive behavior problems in children with autism spectrum disorders: Prevalence and correlates in a large clinical sample. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorder, 8, 1121–1133. doi: 10.1016/j.rasd.2014.05.006.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Hirstein, W., Iversen, P., & Ramachandran, V. S. (2001). Autonomic responses of autistic children to people and objects. Proceedings: Biological Sciences, 268, 1883-1888. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2001.1724.
- Hubbard, J. A., McAuliffe, M. D., Morrow, M. T., & Romano, L. J. (2010). Reactive and proactive aggression in childhood and adolescence: Precursors, outcomes, processes, experiences, and measurement. Journal of Personality, 78(1), 95–118. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2009.00610.x.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Jose, P. E. (2013). ModGraph-I: A programme to compute cell means for the graphical display of moderational analyses (Version 3.0). Wellington: Victoria University of Wellington. Retrieved from http://pavlov.psyc.vuw.ac.nz/paul-jose/modgraph/.
- Kaartinen, M., Puura, K., Makela, T., Rannisto, M., Lemponen, R., Helminen, M., et al. (2012). Autonomic arousal to direct gaze correlates with social impairments among children with ASD. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42, 1917–1927. doi: 10.1007/s10803-011-1435-2.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Kochanska, G., Brock, R. L., Chen, K. H., Aksan, N., & Anderson, S. W. (2015). Paths from mother– Child and father– Child relationships to externalizing behavior problems in children differing in electrodermal reactivity: A longitudinal study from infancy to age 10. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 43, 721–734. doi: 10.1007/s10802-014-9938-x.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
- Kochanska, G., Brock, R. L., & Boldt, L. J. (2016). A cascade from disregard for rules of conduct at preschool age to parental power assertion at early school age to antisocial behavior in early preadolescence: Interplay with the child’s skin conductance level. Development and Psychopathology. doi: 10.1017/S095457941600095X Advance online publication.
- Kylliainen, A., Wallace, S., Coutanche, M. N., Leppanen, J. M., Cusack, J., Bailey, A. J., et al. (2012). Affective-motivational brain responses to direct gaze in children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 53, 790-797. doi:10.111/j.1469-7610.2011.02522.X.Google Scholar
- Lord, C., Rutter, M., DiLavore, P., Risi, S., Gotham, K., & Bishop, S. (2012). Autism diagnostic observation schedule, second edition (ADOS-2). WPS: Manual. Torrance.Google Scholar
- Louwerse, A., van der Geest, J. N., Tulen, J. H. M., van der Ende, J., Van Gool, A. R., Verhulst, F. C., et al. (2013). Effects of eye gaze directions of facial images on looking behaviour and autonomic responses in adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7, 1043–1053. doi: 10.1016/j.rasd.2013.04.013.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Lovass, O. I. (2002). Teaching individuals with developmental delays: Basic intervention techniques. Austin: Pro Ed.Google Scholar
- Matthews, N. L., Pollard, E., Ober-Reynolds, S., Kirwan, J., Malligo, A., & Smith, C. J. (2015). Revisiting cognitive and adaptive functioning in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 45(1), 138–156. doi: 10.1007/s10803-014-2200-0.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Mazefsky, C. A., Anderson, R., Conner, C. M., & Minshew, N. (2012a). Child behavior checklist scores for school-aged children with autism: Preliminary evidence of patterns suggesting the need for referral. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 33, 31–37. doi: 10.1007/s10862-010-9198-1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Mazefsky, C. A., Herrington, J., Siegel, M., Scarpa, A., Maddox, B. B., Scahill, L., & White, S. W. (2013). The role of emotion regulation in autism spectrum disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 52(7), 679–688. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2013.05.006.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
- Neuhaus, E., Bernier, R., & Beauchaine, T. P. (2015). Electrodermal response to reward and non-reward among children with autism. Autism Research. doi: 10.1002/aur.1451. Online ahead of print.
- Pandolfi, V., Magyar, C. I., & Dill, C. A. (2009). Confirmatory factor analysis of the Child Behavior Checklist 1.5–5 in a sample of children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39, 986–995. doi: 10.1007/s/10803-009-0716-5.
- Pandolfi, V., Magyar, C. I., & Dill, C. A. (2012). An initial psychometric evaluation of the CBCL 6–18 in a sample of youth with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6, 96–108. doi: 10.1016/j.rasd.2011.03.009.
- Picard, R. W., Fedor, S., & Ayzenberg, Y. (2015). Multiple arousal theory and daily-life electrodermal activity asymmetry. Emotion Review. doi: 10.1177/1754073914565517 Online ahead of print.
- Raine, A. (1993). The psychopathology of crime: Criminal behavior as a clinical disorder. San Diego: Academic Press.Google Scholar
- Riby, D. M., Whittle, L., & Doherty-Sneddon, G. (2012). Physiological reactivity to faces via live and video-mediated communication in typical and atypical development. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 34(4), 385–395. doi: 10.1080/13803395.2011.645019.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Roid, G. H. (2003). Stanford-Binet intelligence scales (Fifth ed.). Itasca: Riverside.Google Scholar
- Roisman, G. I., Newman, D. A., Fraley, R. C., Haltigan, J. D., Groh, A. M., & Haydon, K. C. (2012). Distinguishing differential susceptibility from diathesis-stress: Recommendations for evaluating interaction effects. Development and Psychopathology, 24, 389–409. doi: 10.1017/S0954579412000065.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Sikora, D. M., Hall, T. A., Hartley, S. L., Gerrard-Morris, A. E., & Cagle, S. (2008). Does parent report of behavior differ across ADOS-G classifications: Analysis of scores from the CBCL and GARS. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38, 440–448. doi: 10.1007/s10803-007-0407-z.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Stagg, S. D., Davis, R., & Heaton, P. (2013). Associations between language development and skin conductance responses to faces and eye gaze in children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(10), 2303–2311. doi: 10.1007/s10803-013-1780-4.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Ting, V., & Weiss, J. A. (2017). Emotion regulation and parent co-regulation in children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi: 10.1007/s10803-016-3009-9. Online ahead of print.
- White, S. W., Mazefsky, C. A., Dichter, G. S., Chiu, P. H., Richey, J. A., & Ollendick, T. H. (2014). Social-cognitive, physiological, and neural mechanisms underlying emotion regulation impairments: Understanding anxiety in autism spectrum disorder. International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience, 39, 22–36. doi: 10.1016/j.ijdevneu.2014.05.012.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar