Researchers Believe Sweat May Predict Behavioral Issues in Adolescents with Autism

Sweating is often a physical reaction to anxiety and stress. Now, researchers at the University of Missouri are monitoring how much adolescents with severe autism sweat in order to understand when behavioral issues, like aggression, are likely to occur.

According to a report this month by Science, the research was led by Bradley Ferguson, an assistant research professor at the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Ferguson used wrist and ankle monitors to analyze the stress levels of eight adolescents with severe autism. The monitors detected a rise in the body’s electrodermal activity (which results from increased levels of sweat) 60% of the time before an individual showed behavioral issues.

“A spike in electrodermal activity is telling us that the individual's body is reacting physiologically to something that is stressful, which could be their internal state, something in the environment, or a combination of the two,” Ferguson explained. He added that, while many adolescents with autism are unable to communicate their stress verbally, their body reacts to stress just like anyone else’s. As a result, alerting parents and caregivers of increased electrodermal activity can allow them to intervene before problem behaviors occur.

David Beversdorf, a professor of radiology, neurology, and psychology in the MU College of Arts and Science, collaborated on the study with Ferguson.

Several other researchers contributed as well.

“Important work is being done to try to identify predictors for when a person with autism is at greatest risk of having a behavioral episode," Beversdorf said. "This research highlights the individual variability in this response that must be considered and may also have implications for individualized treatment approaches moving forward."


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