World Autism Awareness Week: Understanding Sensory Processing in Autism
31 March 2020
Autism Spectrum Sensory Perception (Vision, taste, hearing, speech)
In the last few years, the diagnostic guidelines for autism have caught up with something that many autistic people and their families have known for a long time: that people on the autism spectrum process sensory information in a very different way to those without autism.
Some autistic individuals are highly sensitive to sensory information – for example, they might really dislike certain sounds, or tastes, or they may struggle to cope with fluorescent or flickering lights. On the other hand, some autistic individuals may show under-sensitivity to sensory information, and may seek out sensory stimulation, for example by looking intensely at a toy car’s wheels as they spin. At times, these sensory differences can get too much for autistic individuals, leading to feelings of ‘sensory overload’ and anxiety.
The importance of these so-called ‘sensory symptoms’ was recognised in the most recent version of guidelines for autism diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Now, these symptoms can contribute to an autism diagnosis, along with other non-social symptoms of autism, under the umbrella term of “Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour or interests”.
Yet, we still don’t know much about why these sensory symptoms occur. And this is important because understanding sensory processing in autism has been identified as a top-10 research priority by the autism community. There have been lots of research showing that autistic people respond to sensory information differently compared to non-autistic people in a range of experimental tasks, including research showing that autistic individuals respond differently to visual motion. Interestingly, autistic individuals have been shown to have increased sensitivity to motion information in some tasks, but reduced sensitivity in others.
My current research digs deeper into autistic children’s responses to visual motion information. In particular, we are interested in whether differences between autistic and typically developing children arise in early stages of sensory processing, and/or whether they arise in later stages associated with decision-making. We are also interested whether any differences are specific to autistic children, or whether they might also be found in children with other developmental conditions, such as dyslexia.
To answer these questions, we recently finished collecting data from almost 200 children with an autism diagnosis, a dyslexia diagnosis or no diagnosed developmental conditions (luckily just before we had to stop testing because of the coronavirus outbreak!). Children made responses about the direction of a set of moving dots (or ‘fireflies’) in a computer game. Most children also wore a hat while making their responses so that we could record their brain waves using a non-invasive technique called EEG. I am busy analysing all of the data (at home during the COVID-19 pandemic!) and look forward to being able to share the results very soon! Thank you so much to all of the wonderful families who took part. If you would like more information, please contact Catherine.firstname.lastname@example.org.