Researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine have found what they say is the first concrete evidence of sensory integration difficulties in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.
It’s been suggested that kids on the spectrum might have trouble with sensory processing—meaning that sights, sounds, and touch can become overwhelming because they can’t integrate and make sense of it quickly—but most of the data on this is anecdotal or just noted from clinical observation.
But this group of scientists has measured brain activity and can pinpoint where the issue lies. They hope it means that occupational therapy (really popular for children with the diagnosis) could be evaluated more objectively to see if it’s working, and to understand how to make it more effective.
So what brain differences did the scientists find?The kids (ages 6 to 16) watched a silent movie and were fed both sounds and vibrations that were unrelated to the movie’s visuals. They either heard the sounds or vibrations separately, or they heard and felt all the sensory information at once (creating a multi-sensory experience).
While they were hooked to an EEG machine, the researchers analyzed how fast their brains processed all the sensory input. The typically developing kids processed all these sights, sounds, and feelings 100-200 milliseconds after they occurred—and their brains were very active while doing it. The children on the autism spectrum took 310 milliseconds to register the input (a small difference that could add up quickly given how much sensory input we have in our daily lives), and the spike in brain activity was much less. The researchers say this indicates the kids’ brains were not processing the information as effectively.
But could some children with an autism diagnosis naturally learn to do this more quickly as they get older? The scientists plan to measure the same abilities in adults on the spectrum to try to answer that question.
Parents pay a lot of money to have their children in intense occupational therapies (one of the researchers referred to it as a “cottage industry”) so any concrete data on the sensory integration challenge is good news.