Autonomic arousal to a direct gaze, cooperative behavior and reactive aggression among children with autism spectrum disorders

Event start date
Event start time
12.00
Place

Finn-Medi 5, auditorium, address: Biokatu 12.

Miia Kaartinen

Doctoral defence of Lic.Med. Miia Kaartinen

Autonomic arousal to a direct gaze, cooperative behavior and reactive aggression among children with autism spectrum disorders : Associations with impairments in social skills

The field of science of the dissertation is Paediatric Psychiatry.

The opponent is professor emerita Irma Moilanen (University of Oulu). Professor Kaija Puura acts as the custos.

The language of the dissertation defence is Finnish.

Autonomic arousal during eye contact, cooperative behavior and reactive aggression among children with ASD

In the present thesis, the level of social impairments was observed to be associated with the level of autonomic arousal during eye contact among children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The level of social impairments was not related to cooperative or aggressive behavior among children with ASD. The participants were 7- to 17-year-old children with and without ASD.

Atypical gaze behavior is frequently observed in ASD. Previous evidence implies that, in ASD, engagement in eye contact elicits enhanced autonomic arousal. In the present thesis, autonomic arousal responses were examined by measuring skin conductance responses (SCR) while the participants viewed another, live person with direct gaze, averted gaze, or closed eyes. Typically, an exposure to repeated stimuli leads to suppression in autonomic arousal responses. In the present study, it was observed that the more the response habituation to direct gaze stimuli was attenuated, the more the children with ASD had impairments in social skills, especially in the use of language and other social communication skills, in the use of gesture and non-verbal play, and in social expressiveness. The results imply that attenuated autonomic response habituation during eye contact might be one mechanism that relates to atypical social behavior in ASD. It is possible that attenuated autonomic response habituation to eye contact could result in uncomfortable feelings of arousal during eye contact, which in turn might lead to atypical social behavior in ASD.

Social communication and interaction skills are extensively impaired in ASD. Impairments in social skills concern also cooperative abilities and the regulation of aggressive behavior among some children with ASD. In the present thesis, cooperative and aggressive behaviors were studied with a game theoretic task and a computerized task, respectively. According to the findings, the boys with ASD were able to follow the rule of equity in cooperation regardless of their social impairments. However, refusal to cooperate was positively associated with a greater level of reactive aggression among the boys with ASD. The older boys with ASD tended to be more cooperative. It was also observed that the boys with ASD reacted with a greater intensity of aggression than the typically developing boys when they were faced with attacks of minor intensity or an assailant of the opposite gender. The girls with ASD, on the other hand, were able to regulate their aggressive responses similarly to the girls without ASD.

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The dissertation is published in the publication series of Acta Universitatis Tamperensis; 2294, Tampere University Press, Tampere 2017. The dissertation is also published in the e-series Acta Electronica Universitatis Tamperensis; 1797, Tampere University Press 2017.

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