Sensory processing in autism: research developments

Today we have a guest post from Dr Cathy Manning who is conducting research into the way children with autism see the world around them and how sensory processing can impact on this.

Dr Cathy Manning is the Scott Family Junior Research Fellow in Autism and Related Disorders at University College, Oxford. Cathy completed an undergraduate degree in Psychology at Oxford University, before completing her PhD at the Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE) at the Institute of Education. Cathy is now continuing her research into how children with autism see the world around them.

We heard about Cathy’s research via Twitter and because of Monty’s sensory processing difficulties immediately decided we would like to contribute to her research. It is becoming so widely recognised now how sensory integration can affect people diagnosed with ASD and it can impact Monty's experience of the world in many ways!

The research involves games with a marine theme so we knew it would be right up Monty’s street, and despite the games taking up most of a morning Cathy and Monty worked really well together, with Cathy’s humour and unlimited patience a crucial part of the whole research (and plenty of drink and snack breaks). If you would like to be involved in her research you can contact her on [email protected] or 01865 271 442

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senses

The diagnostic guidelines for autism are catching up with what many people with autism 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 children with autism 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. Others 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 children with autism, leading to feelings of ‘sensory overload’.

The importance of these so-called ‘sensory symptoms’ has been given new recognition in the recently published guidelines for diagnosing autism 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.

In one of the first theories developed to explain how autistic individuals perceive the world around them, Professor Uta Frith suggested that autistic individuals see the world in a fragmented way. This means that people with autism might focus on the individual details of what they see and miss the bigger picture. While this account may explain some aspects of autism, our new research suggests that this may not be true for all information coming through the senses.

In our study, we asked children with autism aged between 6 and 13 years to judge the overall direction of a shoal of “fish” (actually, dots) on the computer. If children with autism focus on the details, they should be very good at working out the directions of individual fish, but may have difficulties in judging the overall direction of the shoal when the individual fish move in different directions. However, we found that the children with autism were actually better than the typical children at working out the direction of the shoal.

The children with autism did not show the same enhancement, however, when they had to ignore dots moving in random directions. These results suggest that children with autism can combine information about moving objects well but may not always know what information to combine and what information to ignore. This increased combination of motion information may in some way ‘overload’ a child with autism, and could lead to feelings of distress.

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Theory of autistic perception

These results fit well with a recent theory of autistic perception, proposed by Dr Liz Pellicano from the Centre for Research in Autism and Education at the UCL Institute of Education and Professor David Burr, from the University of Florence. This theory suggests that individuals with autism rely more heavily on information from the ‘here and now’, rather than using knowledge gained from previous experience. If this is the case, individuals with autism might combine all of the dynamic information they see, rather than using learned experience of what information to filter out.

Other research has looked at how well individuals with autism adapt to what they see. After seeing lots of happy faces, we tend to judge a neutral face as looking more sad. This is an example of an ‘after-effect’, where what we have seen in the past changes our perception of what we see now. These after-effects have been shown to be reduced in autism. Again, this seems to be another case of individuals with autism relying on the information coming to their senses in a given moment, rather than using information gathered from the past.

Now, researchers are starting to look at possible brain mechanisms that could account for these differences. A group of researchers in California have recently looked at how well the brain responses of individuals with and without autism adapt to sensory stimulation. While the brain responses of typical individuals reduced after repeated exposure to sensory stimulation, this didn’t happen as much in the brain responses of the autistic individuals. Their brains seemed to be responding to sensory stimulation as if it was new, every time, rather than ‘getting used’ to repeated exposure.

Implications for people with autism

What does this all mean for children on the autism spectrum and their families? Well, first, it helps us to understand the experiences of children with autism, and how something that others might barely notice could be highly distressing for someone with autism. Second, it might in future be possible to minimise feelings of sensory overload in autistic individuals. While more research is needed, it could be that we can try to reduce sensory stimulation for children with autism, or find ways to help children with autism to filter things out.

At the University of Oxford, we are now continuing our research into how children with autism see the world around them. For our current project, we are looking for children with autism aged between 6 and 14 years who might like to take part. This project would involve playing some fun under-the-sea themed games on the computer. If you would like to hear more about this research, we would love to hear from you!

Dr Cathy Manning

01865 271 442

 

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Angela Kelly

Psychotherapist & SEND parent at Emotions Counselling & Psychotherapy
Angela Kelly is a practising psychotherapist in Surrey. She is the parent of two sons who have autism and ADHD. Angela is Special Needs Jungle's Mental Health Editor
Angela Kelly
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