Autism spectrum disorders are associated with social and emotional deficits, the aetiology of which are not well understood. A growing consensus is that the autonomic nervous system serves a key role in emotional processes, by providing physiological signals essential to subjective states. We hypothesized that altered autonomic processing is related to the socio-emotional deficits in autism spectrum disorders. Here, we investigated the relationship between non-specific skin conductance response, an objective index of sympathetic neural activity, and brain fluctuations during rest in high-functioning adults with autism spectrum disorder relative to neurotypical controls. Compared with control participants, individuals with autism spectrum disorder showed less skin conductance responses overall. They also showed weaker correlations between skin conductance responses and frontal brain regions, including the anterior cingulate and anterior insular cortices. Additionally, skin conductance responses were found to have less contribution to default mode network connectivity in individuals with autism spectrum disorders relative to controls. These results suggest that autonomic processing is altered in autism spectrum disorders, which may be related to the abnormal socio-emotional behaviours that characterize this condition.
Keywords: autism; autonomic nervous system; emotion; resting state; skin conductance.