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Comparing cortisol, stress, and sensory sensitivity in children with autism



Previously we reported that children with autism show significant variability in cortisol. The current investigation was designed to extend these findings by exploring plausible relationships between cortisol and psychological measures of stress and sensory functioning. Salivary cortisol values for diurnal rhythms and response to stress in children with and without autism were compared to parent-report measures of child stress, the Stress Survey Schedule (SSS), sensory functioning, Short Sensory Profile (SSP), and Parenting Stress Index. In autism, a negative relationship between morning cortisol and the SSS revealed that higher observed symptoms of stress were related to lower cortisol. Lower cortisol is seen in conditions of chronic stress and in social situations characterized by unstable social relationships. Sensory sensitivity painted a more complicated picture, in that some aspects of SSP were associated with higher while others were associated with lower cortisol. We propose that increased sensory sensitivity may enhance the autistic child's susceptibility to the influence of zeitgeibers reflected in variable cortisol secretion. Evening cortisol was positively associated with SSS such that the higher the level of evening cortisol, the higher the child's parent-reported daily stress, especially to changes, such as in daily routine. Regarding the response to stress, the psychological and parent variables did not differentiate the groups; rather, discrete subgroups of cortisol responders and nonresponders were revealed in both the autism and neurotypical children. The results support a complex interplay between physiological and behavioral stress and sensory sensitivity in autism and plausible developmental factors influencing stress reactivity across the groups.