One of the core diagnostic features of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is engagement in stereotypical motor movements, although the etiology of this repetitive behavior is unknown. Since the 1960s, it has been hypothesized that stereotypical motor movements serve a homeostatic regulation function, and thereby a putative coupling mechanism to cardiovascular arousal. However, to date, surprisingly few reports explicitly assess cardio-somatic coupling and stereotypical motor movements. The present exploratory study investigates coupling of stereotypical body rocking and hand flapping to heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV) in a convenience sample (n = 10) of children and young adults with moderate to profound ASD. Motor movements were recorded via video and three-axis accelerometry, and simultaneous electrocardiographic signals were obtained to determine cardiovascular indices at or around the onset of naturalistically occurring stereotypy. Analysis of the heart rate revealed both repetitive body rocking and hand flapping in particular were found to associate with a strikingly similar cardiovascular pattern of acceleration and deceleration unrelated to physical demands associated with the movements themselves. Furthermore, neither type of stereotypical movement provoked directional change in heart rate variability. The implications of these results and opportunities for future research are discussed.
An analysis of stereotypical motor movements and cardiovascular coupling in individuals on the autism spectrum