Sarah White and Dr. Mickle South, Department of Psychology
Anxiety is extremely prevalent in autism, with estimates of the co-occurrence ranging up to 84%. Surprisingly, even though anxiety in autism is implicated in behavioral symptoms ranging from avoiding eye contact with others to always insisting on the same menu for lunch, the majority of research has ignored anxiety as a major contributor to the core symptoms associated with autism. Most research has focused on symptoms of social impairment, but it is now realized that anxiety may be a critical factor in the development of such symptoms.
The purpose of my project was to compare potential brain mechanisms that underlie anxiety in autism. This study was designed to address the interaction of cognition and emotion and its role in producing anxiety across various groups. The idea was that if we can understand why individuals with Autism have such high levels of anxiety, then we will be better able to specify intervention techniques and to help support these individuals and their families.
Initially the plan had been to give participants several eggs (with a monetary reward attached to them not breaking) and then record skin conductance responses (SCR, a physiological stress or anxiety response measured by recording electrodes detecting small changes in the amount of sweat produced by the fingers) from participants as they watched their eggs in a variety of conditions. In some conditions their egg was sure to break, others their egg might break, and in others their egg was sure to be safe.
With Plexiglas, glue, plastic tubing, Velcro and some tape, Dr. South and I built the egg dropping contraption and connected it to an air tank that the lab already had. I programmed the computer to present the various cues, record the time, turn on the air at various times to drop the eggs in certain conditions, and record the SCR response of participants. I was excited! It was great to see the project come together so well.
After building the contraption we tried it on several people. The good news was that the computer part and the egg drop contraption worked (even if the egg drop contraption was a bit finicky and the other research assistants complained about the mess the broken eggs made). The bad news was that across all the participants the excitement of seeing the eggs go into the contraption and the fun of watching them fall, elicited a physiological response that completely overshadowed the differences produced by fear (knowing that the egg would break) as compared to suspense (not knowing if the egg was safe or not), or having the egg be safe.
After finding out that the project was not going to work exactly as planned, we decided to change the presentation from physical eggs to a purely computer presentation of the eggs dropping. Along the way this changed to a series of balloons in danger of popping rather than eggs in danger of cracking. The overall design of the experiment remained the same, but with change in the presentation we were able lessen the participants’ excitement enough to pick up their responses to the differences between conditions we were looking for.
The project is currently in operation. While I am unable to report any conclusions until we have completely analyzed our data, I hypothesize that the control group will show no difference in response from their baseline arousal during the safe condition, increased response during the sure to pop condition, and greatly increased response during the suspense condition. In contrast I expect that the autism group will show a moderately increased response from their baseline arousal during the safe condition, and greatly increased responses during both the sure to pop and the suspense conditions. Such results would be indicative of atypical sustained fear in autism—an overgeneralization of uncertainty and apprehension to conditions that should be safe (safe condition) or at least reliable (sure to pop condition).
Even though I will not be at BYU for the conclusion of this project I will continue to keep in contact with Dr. South regarding the results of the project and the next relevant step that should be taken. With pervious work in the lab I have been able to both publish and present our results at meetings, and am confident that the research assistant who takes my place will be able to do the same. I anticipate that these results will be presented at both regional and international meetings (such as the International Meetings for Autism Research, held next year in Spain); and also published in a relevant scientific journal such as Emotion or Autism Research.
I hope that the results of this project will not only further academic understanding of the mechanisms involved in heightened anxiety in autism, but that it will also provide direction for treatment measures to clinicians and other who work with people with autism. In addition, and most importantly, I hope it will help parents understand how and why their children with autism experience such severe day-to-day anxiety and thus suggest ways in which this anxiety can be lessened.