Abnormal trial-to-trial variability (TTV) has been identified as a key feature of neural processing that is related to increased symptom severity in autism. The majority of studies evaluating TTV have focused on cortical processing. However, identifying whether similar atypicalities are evident in the peripheral nervous system will help isolate perturbed mechanisms in autism. The current study focuses on TTV in responses from the peripheral nervous system, specifically from electrodermal activity (EDA). We analyzed previously collected EDA data from 17 adults with autism and 19 neurotypical controls who viewed faces while being simultaneously exposed to fear (fear-induced sweat) and neutral odors. Average EDA peaks were significantly smaller and TTV was reduced in the autism group compared to controls, particularly during the fear odor condition. Amplitude and TTV were positively correlated in both groups, but the relationship was stronger in the control group. In addition, TTV was reduced in those with higher Autism Quotient scores but only for the individuals with autism. These findings confirm the existing results that atypical TTV is a key feature of autism and that it reflects symptom severity, although the smaller TTV in EDA contrasts with the previous findings of greater TTV in cortical responses. Identifying the relationship between cortical and peripheral TTV in autism is key for furthering our understanding of autism physiology. LAY SUMMARY: We compared the changes in electrodermal activity (EDA) to emotional faces over the course of repeated faces in adults with autism and their matched controls. The faces were accompanied by smelling fear-inducing odors. We found smaller and less variable responses to the faces in autism when smelling fear odors, suggesting that the peripheral nervous system may be more rigid. These findings were exaggerated in those who had more severe autism-related symptoms.
© 2020 International Society for Autism Research and Wiley Periodicals LLC.