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Tactile Reactivity in Children with and without Autism Spectrum Disorders

Friday, 3 May 2013: 09:00-13:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
T. Tavassoli1, K. Bellesheim2, M. Tommerdahl3, J. Holden3, D. Grodberg4, A. Kolevzon2, L. Bush5, S. Soffes6 and J. D. Buxbaum6, (1)Psychiatry, Seaver Autism Center, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, NY, (2)Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, NY, (3)University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, (4)Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, NY, (5)Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment, Department of Psychiatry, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY, (6)Psychiatry, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, NY

Anecdotal reports and questionnaire-based studies show that children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) experience sensory stimuli differently from typical developing children. The growing interest and role of sensory reactivity in ASD is reflected by the proposed changes to the DSM-V criteria, category B symptoms: “Hyper-or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of environment”. Tactile reactivity issues, such as being overwhelmed by touch, are commonly reported in ASD but have received far less attention than visual or auditory reactivity. Characterization of tactile reactivity with regards to behavior, perceptual thresholds, and associations to autistic traits is needed. 


The current study aims to characterize tactile reactivity in children with and without ASD using parent reports, observations and psychophysical tests. Further we aim to investigate associations between tactile reactivity and autistic traits and empathy. Our objective is to compare n=20 children with ASD to n=20 typical developing children. 


So far participants have included 9 children with ASD and 4 typical developing children (6-12 years of age). Tactile reactivity was measured using a variety of tests. First, caregivers completed parent reports including the Sensory Profile. Second, observational measures, specifically the Sensory Processing Scales, were administered. Further, psychophysical tests varying in complexity were used; we measured simple and dynamic tactile thresholds, amplitude discrimination and temporal order judgments using a Cortical Metrics vibrotactile stimulator. Autistic traits were measured using the Autism Spectrum Quotient and empathy skills using the Child Empathy Quotient. 


Preliminary results in the first 13 participants showed tactile reactivity differences in children with ASD compared to typical developing children (p< .05). Parents reported differences on tactile reactivity, and psychophysically measured thresholds differed between groups. In addition higher tactile reactivity (i.e. increased sensitivity to touch) was associated with higher autistic traits and less empathy.


Children with ASD differ on various measures of tactile reactivity compared to typical developing children. Implications of a disparate tactile reactivity will be discussed as well as its associations to autistic traits and empathy. Tactile reactivity differences in children with ASD could be used to guide diagnosis and as a biomarker for treatment success.

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