Autonomic response patterns observed during the performance of an attention-demanding task in two groups of children with autistic-type difficulties in social adjustment

Authors


  • The authors thank the Dr. Janus Korczak Foundation for providing financial support to this study.

  • Gijsbertus Mulder passed away in 1999; we dedicate this article to his memory.

Address reprint requests to: Monika Althaus, University Center of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Hanzeplein 1, 9713 GZ Groningen, The Netherlands; E-mail: m.althaus@accare.nl.

Abstract

Two groups of children with autistic-type behavior problems were compared to a group of normal children with respect to their autonomic response patterns observed during the performance of an attention-demanding task. Heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory activity were measured during periods of rest and of task performance. Applying a quantitative model of the baroreflex, we were able to demonstrate qualitative differences among the groups with respect to their vagally controlled response patterns, whereas sympathetic responsiveness did not differ. In terms of our model, the groups with autistic-type behavior showed a decrease in central vagal tone during task performance, while vagal gain appeared to be unaffected or even increased. In contrast, the children in the control group showed the expected pattern of a decrease in vagal gain while vagal tone appeared to be increased. Implications of our findings are discussed in the light of Damasio's somatic marking hypothesis.

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