Anecdotal reports and empirical evidence suggest that atypical or unusual sensory responses are a common feature of autism spectrum conditions (ASC). Sensory issues are now included in the DSM-5 symptom criteria for restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities (RRB). This includes hyper-or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment; such as apparent indifference to pain/heat/cold, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects. When present, sensory problems can interfere with adaptability in many areas of life (communication, daily living, socialization, occupational). Understanding sensory issues in adults with ASC is critical to the identification and prescription of appropriate interventions because over-responsivity is frequently linked to high rates of depression and anxiety which can further compromise an individual’s ability to function in daily life.
A study published in the journal Autism investigated sensory over-responsivity in adults with ASC compared to control participants and the extent to which daily life experiences were endorsed as uncomfortable or distressing by those with ASC. The researcher’s hypothesized that adults with ASC would report more sensory over-responsivity than controls. A second objective was to test whether sensory over-responsivity is linked to autistic traits in adults with and without ASC.
Adults with (n = 221) and without (n = 181) autism spectrum conditions participated in an online survey. The Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), the Raven Progressive Matrices and the Sensory Processing Scale were used to characterize the sample. Adults with autism spectrum conditions reported more sensory over-responsivity than control participants across various sensory domains (visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory and proprioceptive). Notable in this study was the association between sensory over-responsivity and autistic traits. Increased sensory sensitivity was associated with more self-reported autistic traits, both across and within groups. These results indicate that adults with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) experience sensory over-responsivity to daily sensory stimuli to a high degree. A positive relationship also exists between sensory over-responsivity and autistic traits.
Despite its limitations, this study shows that adults with ASC self-report over-responsivity across multiple sensory domains that affect their daily life routines and thus quality of life. Evaluating and attending to over-responsivity in adults with ASC have implications for understanding and addressing the sensory components of their daily life routines and roles. Appropriate intervention should be directed towards sensory issues that may be contributing to emotional and psychological challenges and towards designing sensory friendly domestic and work environments.
Tavassoli, T., Miller, L. J., Schoen, S. A., Nielsen, D. M., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2014). Sensory over-responsivity in adults with autism spectrum conditions. Autism, 18, 428–432. doi: 10.1177/1362361313477246
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CPsychol, NCSP, AFBPsS is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, chartered psychologist, registered psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. He is also a university educator and trainer, and has published widely on the topic of autism spectrum disorders both in the US and internationally. Dr. Wilkinson is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. He is also editor of a recent volume in the American Psychological Association (APA) School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools and author of the new book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT.
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