Associations between physiological and neural measures of sensory reactivity in youth with autism

Jiwon Jung, Tomislav D. Zbozinek, Kaitlin K. Cummings, Frank Wilhelm, Mirella Dapretto, Michelle G. Craske, Susan Y. Bookheimer, Shulamite A. Green*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) commonly show sensory over‐responsivity (SOR), an impairing condition related to over‐reactive brain and behavioral responses to aversive stimuli. While individuals with ASD often show atypically high physiological arousal, it is unclear how this relates to sensory reactivity. We therefore investigated how physiological arousal relates to brain and behavioral indices of SOR, to inform understanding of the biological mechanisms underlying SOR and to determine whether physiological measures are associated with SOR‐related brain responses.
MethodsYouth aged 8–18 (49 ASD; 30 age‐ and performance‐IQ‐matched typically developing (TD)) experienced mildly aversive tactile and auditory stimuli first during functional magnetic resonance imaging (N = 41 ASD, 26 TD) and then during skin conductance (SCR) (N = 48 ASD, 28 TD) and heart rate (HR) measurements (N = 48 ASD, 30 TD). Parents reported on their children’s SOR severity.

ResultsAutism Spectrum Disorder youth overall displayed greater SCR to aversive sensory stimulation than TD youth and greater baseline HR. Within ASD, higher SOR was associated with higher mean HR across all stimuli after controlling for baseline HR. Furthermore, the ASD group overall, and the ASD‐high‐SOR group in particular, showed reduced HR deceleration/greater acceleration to sensory stimulation compared to the TD group. Both SCR and HR were associated with brain responses to sensory stimulation in regions previously associated with SOR and sensory regulation.
Autism Spectrum Disorder youth displayed heightened physiological arousal to mildly aversive sensory stimulation, with HR responses in particular showing associations with brain and behavioral measures of SOR. These results have implications for using psychophysiological measures to assess SOR, particularly in individuals with ASD who cannot undergo MRI.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 15 Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

© 2021 Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health.

Fields of Science and Technology Classification 2012

  • 501 Psychology


  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • physiology
  • fMRI
  • sensory over‐responsivity

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