International Meeting for Autism Research (May 7 - 9, 2009): Sensory Sensitivities and the Autism Spectrum Quotient

Sensory Sensitivities and the Autism Spectrum Quotient

Friday, May 8, 2009
Northwest Hall (Chicago Hilton)
10:00 AM
A. E. Robertson , Psychology, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, United Kingdom
D. R. Simmons , Department of Psychology, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, United Kingdom

There is a variety of evidence which suggests that individuals with ASD show atypical responses to sensory stimuli. Is there a correlation between the degree to which ASD-like traits are displayed in an individual and the level of atypical sensory responses experienced?


  • To construct a sensory questionnaire that could be self-administered by individuals with ASD (as well as typical participants) to give an informative “sensory score”.
  • To determine whether there was a correlation between AQ score (i.e. performance in the Autism Spectrum Quotient questionnaire of Baron-Cohen et al, 2001) and sensory score in our sample.
  • To find out which situations/sensory stimuli/environments people with a high AQ score found problematic.


A sensory questionnaire was developed and posted on a publicly accessible website. This sensory questionnaire consisted of 75 items (70 closed, 5 open). Closed questions were distributed equally between 7 modalities (visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, olfactory, vestibular and proprioceptive) and investigated both “hyper” and “hypo” aspects of each modality. The total sensory score was calculated based on the number and severity of the reported sensory symptoms. The AQ was administered alongside the sensory questionnaire. The web-site address was publicized within the university, via personal contacts of the authors and an online forum for people with ASD.


There were 176 responses (68.2% female; 31.8% male), with AQ scores ranging between 5 and 49. A significant linear correlation was observed between the AQ scores and the total sensory scores (r = 0.772, p < .0001). Of particular interest was the discovery that mid-section AQ scorers (i.e. those who may have some traits of ASD but unlikely to be diagnosed as having AS/HFA [18<AQ<32]) had significantly higher sensory scores than individuals with a more ‘typical’ score [i.e. AQ < 19] [t(138) = 8.1, p < .0001]. This relationship held when the sensory scores were separated into responses to hyper questions and those to hypo questions. Content Analysis was used for the open questions. Many individuals with high AQ scores found particular sensory stimuli to be problematic, e.g. cluttered visual environments, loud noises and strong odours.


  1. There was a strong positive correlation between AQ score and sensory score in our sample.
  2. Middle-scorers in the AQ had a significantly higher sensory score than the low-scorers, and a significantly lower score than the high-scorers.
  3. Problematic environments mentioned by those with a high AQ score were varied, but supermarkets and strong-smelling shops (e.g. perfume shops) were indicated frequently. Some people said that they could not physically enter such environments, and therefore resorted to using the internet to do their shopping.
  4. In our sample, individuals with high AQ scores indicated in their responses to the open questions that, despite being motivated to interact socially, it was often too difficult or painful due to the aversive nature of the sensory environment.
  5. These data suggest that atypical sensory responses may play a role in increased social isolation.


Baron-Cohen et al. (2001). J. Aut. Dev. Dis., 31, 5-17.

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