When present, sensory problems can interfere with adaptability in many areas of life (communication, daily living, socialization, occupational). Understanding sensory issues in adults on the autism spectrum 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 Autism investigated sensory over-responsivity in adults compared to control participants and the extent to which daily life experiences were endorsed as uncomfortable or distressing by those on the spectrum. The researcher’s hypothesized that adults with autism 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 autism.
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 on the autism spectrum experience sensory over-responsivity to daily sensory stimuli to a high degree and that a positive relationship exists between sensory over-responsivity and autistic traits.
Despite its limitations, this study shows that adults on the spectrum 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 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.
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP 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 text in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools and author of the book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT.