When compared to children with non-ASD developmental delays, children with autism had significantly more tactile sensitivity, auditory anomalies (low response), and taste/smell sensitivity.

A brief review of: Wiggins, L., Robins, D., Bakeman, R., & Adamson, L. (2009). Breif Report: Sensory Abnormalities as Distinguishing Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders in Young Children Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders DOI: 10.1007/s10803-009-0711-x

Although having sensory abnormalities is not a DSM-IV diagnostic symptom of autism, parents, clinicians, and researchers often report that children with autism have hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli, such as sensitivity to bright lights, loud noises, specific fabrics, or unique flavors or food textures. Sometimes these sensitivities are reported as “unusual behaviors,” such as only wanting to wear a specific shirt (maybe due to sensitivity to other fabrics), disliking all creamy liquids (due to sensitivity to the texture rather than taste), or becoming upset when outside during sunny days (possible sensitivity to bright lights). Yet, these type of sensory difficulties are also reported by parents of children with other developmental disorder.

Therefore, in this study the authors wanted to determine whether sensory abnormalities would differentiate between children with ASD and children with other developmental conditions. That is, the authors wanted to examine to what extent such sensory sensitivities were unique to autism.

To this end, the authors examined 34 families with children referred for a developmental evaluation due to concerns of possible developmental delays. These children ranged in age from 17 to 45 months with most (79%) being male. The children underwent an evaluation that included the ADOS, a sensory exam, and a DSM-based clinical exam.

After the assessment, 17 children were given an ASD diagnosis (11 with autism and 6 with PDD-NOS) and 17 children were given a non-autism diagnosis (10 with developmental delay and 7 with language delay). When compared to the children with non-ASD developmental delays, the children with autism had significantly more tactile sensitivity, auditory anomalies (low response), and taste/smell sensitivity. The authors did not find differences between the two groups in visual or auditory over-sensitivity.

These results provide indirect support for the common clinical practice of considering signs of sensory sensitivities as one factor when determining whether a child has an ASD, a developmental delay, or a language delay. The results also suggest that early sensory sensitivity should be one of the factors examined by pediatricians during healthy baby checkups. However, since this study did not compare these two groups with typically developing children, the results do not tell us whether the levels of sensory anomalies observed in the non-ASD group are higher than what is expected among typically developing children.

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5 Responses to Sensory sensitivity as early sign of autism: more empirical evidence.

  1. Michael Gray says:

    Have you looked at not just bright lights, but what I term “flickering” lights?
    Examples include fluorescent lamps and mercury vapour lamps, which flicker at 120Hz (in countries with an AC frequency of 60Hz) or 100Hz (50Hz nominal mains frequency).
    If one joins a photocell to an oscilliscope, one can see the on/off nature of the light source.

    Anecdotally, fluorescent lighting is highly disorienting to most of the folk I know who have Asperger’s.
    (I get disorientated after a few minutes in a room that is exclusively lit with flourescent lighting, as opposed to incandescent)

    Temple Grandin complains of this sort of lighting most eloquently.
    It seems to me that folk sans autism do not even notice the effect, and so do not research it.

    Just a thought…

  2. Thank you Michael for bringing this up. You are correct that the authors did not examine flickering lights. I am not familiar with the specific items included in the scale used by the authors, but the light sensitivity examined seemed to be focused on sensitivity to bright lights. So it is possible that the findings would have been different when examining flickering specifically.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Did the ASD children also have a diagnosis of ADHD. ASD and ADHD is often crossed over, not to mention Fragile X as well and ASD and ADHD (now that I’m thinking of it). So did the children with ASD have only one diagnosis? Also SPD is not recognized by Psychiatry. But there is a sensory exam used by OT’s, is this what was used? To me if the study doesn’t state this then it’s not a very useful study, especially with the small sample size.

  4. Thank you Julie for the comment. The authors did not state whether they controlled for co-morbid ADHD. So it is unknown whether the ASD kids had any co-morbid diagnoses.

    They used the Short Sensory Profile (SSP; Dunn 1999) to assess for sensitivity.

    Thanks! Nestor.

  5. Nancy says:

    My grandson had a depresed skull fracture before he was 4. He has since developed a dislike for textures in foods. He will do without food at all, and if he is made to eat a food with a texture he can not stand he almost vomits. What can be done, I am very worried about his nutritional needs.

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