Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is marked by repetitive thinking and high rates of depression. Understanding the extent to which repetitive negative thinking in ASD reflects autistic stereotypy versus general depressive thinking patterns (e.g., rumination) could help guide treatment research to improve emotional health in ASD. We compared associations between rumination, depressive symptoms, and pupil response to social-emotional material in adults with ASD and typically developing (TD) adults with and without depression.
Methods: N = 53 verbally fluent young adults were recruited to three cohorts: ASD, n = 21; TD-depressed, n = 13; never-depressed TD-controls, n = 19. Participants completed Ruminative Response Scale and Beck Depression Inventory self-reports and a passive-viewing task employing emotionally-expressive faces, during which pupillary motility was assessed to quantify cognitive-affective load. Main and interactive effects of cohort, emotion condition, and time on pupil amplitude were tested via a linear mixed effects analysis of variance using restricted maximum likelihood estimation. Similar procedures were used to test for effects of rumination and depressive symptoms on pupil amplitude over time within ASD.
Results: Responsive pupil dilation in the ASD cohort tended to be significantly lower than TD-depressed initially but increased to comparable levels by trial end. When viewing sad faces, individuals with ASD who had higher depression scores resembled TD-depressed participants' faster, larger, and sustained pupil response. Within ASD, depressive symptoms uniquely predicted early pupil response to sad faces, while rumination and depression scores each independently predicted sustained pupil response.
Conclusions: People with elevated depressive symptoms appear to have faster and greater increases in pupil-indexed neural activation following sad stimuli, regardless of ASD status, suggesting the utility of conceptualizing rumination as depression-like in treatment. Ruminative processes may increase more slowly in ASD, suggesting the potential utility of interventions that decrease reactions before they are uncontrollable. Findings also reinforce the importance of testing for effects of internalizing variables in broader ASD research.