Adolescence, Stress and Cortisol in Autism Spectrum Disorders

OA Autism. 2014 Feb 1;1(1):2.


Adolescence, the transition between childhood and adulthood, is a period of remarkable physiological, psychological and social change. A variety of physiological changes coincide with the dynamic transition, which is evident in the regulation and responsivity of the Limbic-Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenocortical (LHPA) axis. Specifically, elevations in diurnal basal cortisol levels have been reported, as well as higher cortisol in response to perceived stressors. While this enhanced responsivity may help prepare the individual to adapt to increased demands and new challenges, it may also mark a time of increased vulnerability in populations already prone to enhanced physiological arousal and poor adaption to change, such as autism. To date most studies investigating the integrity of the LHPA axis in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have shown more variable diurnal regulation and a pattern of enhanced responsivity to stress. There is also evidence of more marked reactivity over development suggesting that adolescence may be a time of increased risk for enhanced physiological arousal and social stress. The following review briefly summarizes the literature to date on autism, adolescence and salivary cortisol. The current summary suggests that enhanced study of the interplay between social functioning and stress during the adolescent period in ASD is warranted.