Differentiation between autism and multiple complex developmental disorder in response to psychosocial stress

Lucres M.C. Jansen, Christine C. Gispen-de Wied, Rutger Jan van der Gaag, Herman van Engeland

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Multiple Complex Developmental Disorder (MCDD) represents a distinct group within the autistic spectrum based on symptomatology. Unlike autistic children, part of MCDD children develop schizophrenia in adult life. Despite the differences, patients of both disorders are mainly characterized by abnormal reactions to their social environment. At the biological level, we showed in a previous study that MCDD children have a reduced cortisolresponse to psychosocialstress. Given the fact that autistic children clinically show more social impairments, it was hypothesized that they may have even further decreased cortisol responses to psychosocial stress than MCDD patients. Therefore, 10 autistic children were compared to 10 MCDD children and 12 healthy controlchildren in their response to a psycho social stressor, consisting of a public speaking task. In order to test whether any impairments in the biological stress response arespecific for psychosocial stress, the autistic children were compared with 11 MCDD children and 15 control children in their response toa physicalstressor, consisting of 10 min of bicycle exercise. Heart rate and salivary cortisol levels were used as indicators of response tothe stress tests. Autistic children showed a relatively elevated cortisol response to psychosocial stress, in contrast to MCDD children who showed a reduced cortisol response. No differences in heart rate or cortisol responses to the physical stress test were found. The specific difference between autistic and MCDD children in their cortisol response to psychosocial stress indicates that the disturbed reactions tothe socialenvironment observed in these disorders may have different biological backgrounds.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)582-590
Number of pages9
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2003


  • Autism
  • Cortisol
  • Exercise
  • MCDD
  • Psychosocialstress

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