Study Finds That Sensory Issues May Be An Earlier Sign of Autism Than Communication Issues

Children with autism tend to process sensory information differently than neurotypical children. This can mean an aversion to a particular sound or texture or an intense fixation on a preferred sensory experience. A new study finds that these differences may be detectable earlier than was thought.

Researchers from the universities of Southern California and North Carolina spent several years tracking the sensory patterns of children, hoping to detect differences between those who would later be diagnosed with autism and those who would not be. The findings, published in the journal Child Development, show that sensory preferences for kids with autism developed differently than those of neurotypical children. This may be a helpful tool in earlier diagnosis for kids on the spectrum.


Lead author Dr. Yun-Ju Chen says, “It’s a prospective study, which means we followed each child over six years to track their individual development. At the beginning, we didn’t know which children would develop autism. So it’s incredibly interesting to see that, once they were school age at the end of the study, autistic children’s sensory patterns followed very different trajectories, compared to children with neurotypical outcomes or those with other developmental conditions.”

After following more than 1,500 children between 2013 and 2019, the team learned that the participants who developed autism, or had traits associated with autism, generally had their sensory preferences grow stronger over the course of the study. These behaviors were reported by parents during different stages of development: at infancy (9-16-months-old), at preschool (3-4-years-old) and at school-age (6-7-years-old). The other children, however, had a more steady preference at each time period. These findings show that sensory preferences may be more helpful in early autism detection than was previously believed.


Dr. Chen explains, “We used to think that social communication differences were the most important behavioral markers for identifying autism in infancy. But we found that sensory differences may emerge earlier than social communication differences in infants who later developed autism, and these early sensory differences may cascade into more definitive features of autism, including social-communication differences, later in life. This means that sensory processing functions may be much more important in early detection than we have previously thought.”

The researchers note that this discovery may ultimately help scientists better understand autism, alter early inventions and therapy that can begin in infancy, lead to better outcomes for the child, and provide better supports for families.

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