Many people with Autism Spectrum disorder (ASD) exhibit problem behavior, including significant challenges for those providing care and services. A new study indicates that psychophysiological measures like electrodermal activity (EDA) might forecast behavioral outbursts in patients with severe autism.

The researchers from the University of Missouri School of Medicine has reported that sweating in autistic individuals signaled a rise in EDA, about 60% of the time before a behavior issue like self-harm or aggression.

"A spike in [EDA] is telling us that the individual's body is reacting physiologically to something that is stressful," Medscape quoted the study’s lead author Bradley J. Ferguson, MD.

The study included eight boys with severe autism who exhibited problem behaviors like self-injurious action, aggressiveness, inappropriate social behavior, and noncompliance. Their EDA were collected while they were in a naturalistic setting. The results indicated that 60% of the episodes of problem behavior was associated with an ‘anticipatory rise in EDA’ earlier.

Finding an increase in stress levels might give caregivers a chance to intervene and help deescalate a situation. When we notice stress levels starting to rise, it would be an indicator that an individual with ASD requires some kind of intervention- including removing them from the situation or giving them a break, etc.

The authors noted that, although this was just a small study, the findings will be beneficial for future research on data collecting via sensor monitoring as well as for other studies on ways to use such data.

The study has demonstrated that many autistic individuals behave aggressively and exhibit other behaviors like self-injury and irritability. And that, those with limited communication and social engagement skills are at even increased risk for developing such odd behaviors.

Since stress can often cause such problems in individuals with ASD, the team of researchers has started investigating ways of measuring EDA so as to assess changes in an individual’s internal state of stress. The increase in EDA might also indicate the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. The activation of the sympathetic nervous system might cause sweating, which in turn conducts electricity from eccrine sweat glands throughout the body.

Quite often, individuals with severe ASD cannot verbally communicate when they get stressed out and they tend to communicate it via their problem behaviors.

Parker Roos, who suffers from Fragile X, sits on the floor and hugs his mother Holly at their home in Canton, Illinois, April 4, 2012. Reuters