International Meeting for Autism Research: Sensory Sensitivities in Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Qualitative Analysis

Sensory Sensitivities in Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Qualitative Analysis

Thursday, May 20, 2010
Franklin Hall B Level 4 (Philadelphia Marriott Downtown)
9:00 AM
A. E. Robertson , Dept. of 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 (e.g. parent reports, first-hand accounts and experimental data) which suggests that individuals with ASD show atypical responses to sensory stimuli.  Following on from our previous study (Robertson & Simmons, IMFAR, 2009), in which we found a strong positive correlation between score in the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ; Baron-Cohen et al, 2001) and score on a measure of the severity and frequency of sensory problems, we attempted to determine whether those with medium/high AQ scores reported being affected by sensory stimuli more than individuals with lower AQ scores.  We were particularly interested in the effect that sensory sensitivities may have on accessibility – for example that issues with lighting, sounds or smells may restrict some individuals with ASD from accessing certain facilities within their communities.


· To determine whether individuals with higher AQ scores described issues involving sensory stimuli more frequently than those with lower scores (this was in response to all questions).

· To determine whether those with high AQ scores were more likely to have presentedwith hearing problems at a young age (e.g. displaying hypo-sensitivity to sounds).

· To discover which environments were most problematic for participants, and the effect that this had on their daily lives.


Five questions, designed to examine the issues with sensory stimuli that participants experienced, were administered online to 212 individuals (68% female; 32% male).  Participants also completed the AQ. 


When the questions were coded for sensory content (this was performed blind to AQ score), the likelihood that sensory issues were mentioned increased as AQ score increased.  Supermarkets were deemed the most sensory-noxious environment for the high AQ scorers in our sample, with 80% of respondents experiencing issues with sensory stimuli in that particular environment.  However, only 3.8% of those in the low-scorers group and 13.8% in the medium-scorers group mentioned having difficulties with sensory stimuli in supermarkets.


· Participants with high AQ scores were more likely to describe having issues with sensory stimuli than the low- and medium-scoring groups.  Also, when asked how they found it easiest to calm down when anxious, high-scorers were more likely to describe methods involving sensory stimulation (e.g. jumping on a trampoline or rocking back and forth).

· Our previous research (Robertson & Simmons, IMFAR, 2008) showed that children with autism were more likely to have been referred for potential hearing problems (despite clinically normal hearing) than those with PDD-NOS.  However, there was no group difference found in the current sample. 

· Problematic environments mentioned by those with a high AQ score were varied, but those that were indicated most frequently included supermarkets and strong-smelling shops.  Some people said that they could not physically enter such environments, and therefore resorted to using the internet to do their shopping.

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See more of: Autism Symptoms