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Alterd circadian patterns of salivary cortisol in low functioning children and adolescents with autism

Background Reports of higher stress responsivity, altered sleep-wake cycle and a melatonin deficit in autism have stimulated interest in the cortisol circadian rhythm in individuals with autism. Methods The study was conducted on 55 low-functioning children and adolescents with autism (11.3 4.1 years-old) and 32 typically developing controls (11.7 4.9 years-old) matched for age, sex and puberty. Behavioral assessment was performed using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS). Salivary samples for measurement of cortisol were collected during a 24-h period (at least 0800 h-Day1, 1600 h, 0800 h-Day2 for 46 individuals with autism and 27 controls, and 0800 h-Day1, 1100 h, 1600 h, 2400 h, 0800 h-Day2 for 13 individuals with autism and 20 controls). Overnight (2000 h0800 h) urinary cortisol excretion was also measured. Results The autism group displayed significantly higher levels of salivary cortisol at all time-points, flatter daytime and nighttime slopes, higher 0800 h cortisol levels on Day2 compared to Day1, and greater variances of salivary and urinary cortisol. There was a significant relationship between salivary cortisol levels and impairments in social interaction and verbal language. Overnight urinary cortisol excretion was similar in the autism and control groups. Conclusion Anticipation of the stressful collection procedure appears to contribute to the higher 0800 h-Day2 versus 0800 h-Day1 salivary cortisol levels in autism. This sensitization to stressors might be as, or even more, important clinically than exposure to novelty in autism. The similar group means for overnight urinary cortisol excretion indicate that basal HPA axis functioning is unaltered in low-functioning autism. The elevated salivary cortisol levels observed in autism over the 24-h period in a repeated stressful condition, flattened diurnal cortisol patterns and the apparent effect of anticipation are consistent with prior findings in high trait anxiety.