Sympathetic-Parasympathetic Interaction and Externalizing Problems in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Rachel M. Fenning, Stephen A. Erath, Jason K. Baker, Daniel S. Messinger, Jacquelyn Moffitt, Brian R. Baucom, Alexander K. Kaeppler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) exhibit significant difficulties with emotion regulation and reactivity, which may be linked to underlying psychophysiology. The present study examined associations between autonomic nervous system activity and individual differences in externalizing behavior problems in children with ASD. A multisystem approach was adopted to consider the interplay between markers of sympathetic (electrodermal reactivity—EDA-R) and parasympathetic reactivity (respiratory sinus arrhythmia reactivity—RSA-R) in relation to behavioral challenges. Fifty-two children with ASD ages 6–10 years contributed complete psychophysiological data. Measures of EDA-R and RSA-R (RSA withdrawal) were obtained in response to a laboratory challenge task and parents reported on child externalizing behavior problems using a standardized questionnaire and a structured clinical interview. An equifinality model was supported, with two distinct psychophysiological pathways linked to heightened externalizing behavior problems. Greater RSA-R was associated with more externalizing problems in the context of higher levels of EDA-R, and lower EDA-R was associated with increased externalizing problems at lower levels of RSA-R. Findings underscore the importance of considering the role of psychophysiology in the unfolding of comorbid externalizing problems in children with ASD. Potential implications for tailoring coregulatory supports are discussed. Autism Res 2019, 12: 1805–1816.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1805-1816
Number of pages12
JournalAutism Research
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 1 2019


  • autism spectrum disorder
  • autonomic nervous system
  • electrodermal activity
  • emotion regulation
  • externalizing behavior problems
  • psychophysiology
  • respiratory sinus arrhythmia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Genetics(clinical)


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