Anxiety is a major associated feature of autism spectrum disorders. The incidence of anxiety symptoms in this population has been associated with altered interoceptive processing. Here, we investigated whether recent findings of impaired interoceptive accuracy (quantified using heartbeat detection tasks) and exaggerated interoceptive sensibility (subjective sensitivity to internal sensations on self-report questionnaires) in autistic adults, can be extended into a school-age sample of children and adolescents (n = 75). Half the sample had a verified diagnosis of an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and half were IQ- and age-matched children and adolescents without ASD. The discrepancy between an individual's score on these two facets of interoception (interoceptive accuracy and interoceptive sensibility), conceptualized as an interoceptive trait prediction error, was previously found to predict anxiety symptoms in autistic adults. We replicated the finding of reduced interoceptive accuracy in autistic participants, but did not find exaggerated interoceptive sensibility relative to non-autistic participants. Nonetheless, the positive association between anxiety and interoceptive trait prediction error was replicated. However, in this sample, the best predictor of anxiety symptoms was interoceptive sensibility. Finally, we observed lower metacognitive accuracy for interoception in autistic children and adolescents, relative to their non-autistic counterparts. Despite their reduced interoceptive accuracy on the heartbeat tracking task and comparable accuracy on the heartbeat discrimination task, the autistic group reported higher confidence than the typical group in the discrimination task. Findings are consistent with theories of ASD as a disorder of interoceptive processing, but highlight the importance of validating cognitive models of developmental conditions within developmental populations.
- autism spectrum disorders
- developmental disorders