Home / education / Autism in Academia: Less stress may equal greater success

According to findings published in the Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, the severity of a child’s autism may be directly linked with the level of stress or anxiety they experience on a day-to-day basis.

Researchers at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y. recently discovered levels of the stress-hormone cortisol remain significantly higher throughout the day in children with low-functioning autism as compared to typically-developing kids and those on the high-functioning end of the spectrum.

Saliva samples were collected three times each day over two different weekends from 43 kids ages 7 to 12. The group included children with no diagnosis as well as kids with autism and an IQ below 70 — considered low-functioning — and high-functioning individuals with IQs above 85.

All of the children exhibited typical patterns in their cortisol levels, with the hormone at its highest in the morning and getting progressively lower throughout the day. However, the exact amount of cortisol seen in low-functioning children was distinct, researchers found.

“Children with (lower-functioning autism) had significantly higher cortisol, the stress indicator, across the day than both the (high-functioning children with autism) and typical children and, interestingly, children with (high-functioning autism) did not significantly differ from the typical children across the day,” said Susan Putnam of the Institute for Autism Research at Canisius College who led the study.

Putnam and her colleagues said the results point to a link between stress in the body and functioning ability and IQ.   At this time researchers aren’t sure whether the increased cortisol observed in those with more severe autism is a result of neurological impairment or heightened sensitivity to the environment.

Here’s a link to the original article if you are interested in more information:


It’s going to be interesting to see where this research goes in the future.  Although in all honesty, I’m not sure if this isn’t a question of “what came first the chicken or the egg.”

If you have even a cursory knowledge of neuroscience you know that when cortisol levels are high new learning is almost impossible.  Ever tried to do math while running for your life?

Are low functioning levels low because increased stress inhibits the ability to retain and comprehend new information or are low functioning children more likely to be stressed because lack of comprehension can sometimes result in the child feeling unstable and that feeling of instability produces more cortisol?  Maybe we’ll find out someday.

I think whatever you believe about stress and Autism; you are more than likely going to get better results if your child is happy and having fun while learning.  If your child is in a constant state of stress that’s generally a sign that it’s time to try something new.  It’s always a good rule of thumb to be as flexible or more flexible than the person you are trying instruct:)

Sometimes it’s better to be a clinician or caregiver that bends instead of one that breaks a child’s motivation.