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Utah's Foremost Platform for Undergraduate Research Presentation
2015 Abstracts

What Are You Afraid Of?: Stress Response to Performance Evaluation in Young Adults Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Catie Nielson, Alyssa Ashton, Alexis Grow, Christian Kindt, and Jay Homewood< Brigham Young University

Social and Behavioral Sciences

Studies have found co-morbidity of ASD and social anxiety disorder, but it is unclear how the anxiety experienced in ASD is socially mediated. In this study, we measured psychophysiological reactivity during socially stressful (performance evaluation) trials compared to unevaluated trials. We aimed to understand how anxiety in people with ASD is mediated by fear of negative social evaluation. We hypothesized that the ASD group would show elevated stress to both types of threat while the control group (CON) would be more affected by social evaluation than non-social contexts. Twenty adults aged 18-29 diagnosed with ASD were compared to age- and IQ-matched controls on modified Stroop and Multi- Sensory Integration tasks. We measured stress with impedance cardiography and skin conductance response. In a computerized task, participants were instructed for each block whether or not the research assistant and computer would evaluate them. We examined within subjects differences for evaluated and unevaluated trials, as well as between subjects with ASD and CON groups. We found that adults with ASD had higher physiological responses, relative to controls, during stress conditions. Parasympathetic activity during recovery periods was reduced in the ASD group. There were significant group X evaluation condition interactions, with the evaluated trials adding substantially more to the stress response in the CON but not the already elevated ASD group. Response to social evaluation was significantly correlated with scores on the Fear of Negative Evaluation and the Social Anxiety Questionnaire in both groups. Increased sympathetic activity during stress and decreased parasympathetic activity during rest confirm other recent studies that show ASD adults are out-of-sync with fear versus safety contexts, which may underlie their everyday anxiety. Interventions for anxiety in ASD should focus on helping individuals recognize physiological stress responses and develop situation-specific coping skills.