Autonomic nervous system responses to social stimuli among autistic individuals: A systematic review and meta-analysis

Ester Zadok, Ofer Golan, Michal Lavidor, Ilanit Gordon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Physiological responses to environmental and social stimuli have been studied broadly in relation to psychological states and processes. This may be especially important regarding autistic individuals, who show disparities in social interactions. However, findings from studies assessing autonomic nervous system (ANS) responses of autistic individuals present contradictions, with reports showing both autonomic disparities and intact autonomic functioning. The current study aimed to review the existing literature and to estimate if there is a difference between autistic individuals and neurotypical (NT) individuals in their autonomic responses to social stimuli. Furthermore, the study examined factors that may moderate this difference, including the type of physiological function measured, the level of participation required, as well as the age and intellectual functioning of the participants. The meta-analysis revealed a small and statistically insignificant overall difference between autistic and NT individuals, albeit with high heterogeneity. A further nested moderator analysis revealed a significant difference between autistic and NT individuals in physiological response that reflects mainly a parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activity. Another difference was found in physiological response that reflects a combined activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, but only for experimental tasks that demanded active participation in social interactions. These results suggest a distinctiveness in autonomic regulation of autistic individuals in social situations, and point to the PNS as an important study objective for future investigation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)497-511
Number of pages15
JournalAutism Research
Volume17
Issue number3
Early online date10 Dec 2023
DOIs
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2024

Keywords

  • autism spectrum disorder
  • autonomic nervous system
  • physiological response
  • social stimuli

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Clinical Neurology
  • Genetics(clinical)
  • General Neuroscience

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