Sensory processing patterns in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Image courtesy of BrainsCAN. Sensory processing patterns in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Image courtesy of BrainsCAN.

Sensory grouping possible key to helping kids with autism learn

A new study with ties to Western University has found children with autism are better served by environments customized to meet their specific sensory needs.

Researchers examined the sensory abilities of nearly 600 children with autism and found different sensory processing patterns.

“We were looking for patterns to see if certain traits tend to co-occur together,” said study co-author Nichole Scheerer, a Western BrainsCAN postdoctoral fellow. “If someone tends to be more sensitive to sound, are they also going to be more sensitive to light? If someone is sensitive to textures and tactile stimulation (things like pain and temperature), are they also sensitive to tastes, but not sensitive to light?”

The five sensory processing categories identified through the study were taste and smell sensitivity; under responsive and sensation seeking; movement difficulties with low energy; little difficulty in sensory processing; and difficulties in all areas of sensory processing.

Using these specific categories, the scientists were able to predict autistic behavioural traits in a child such as socialization difficulties, communication issues, and repetition or compulsions.

According to researchers, the results of the study show a need to tailor a child with autism's environment to fit their sensory needs.

"An autistic child might perform poorly in the classroom, not because they have cognitive difficulties. Rather, because they process sensory information differently than their peers, the sensory environment in their classroom may interfere with their ability to concentrate and perform cognitively,” said Scheerer. “This really highlights that in order to help autistic children and make a difference in their lives, we need to invest in creating sensory-friendly environments and do a better job of accommodating sensory needs.”

Western University psychology professor Ryan Stevenson, the senior author of the study, added that there is a lot that can be done to change an autistic child's sensory environment.

"If there’s a child who is sensation-seeking, providing more stimulation or allowing them to stim may reduce some of the behaviours that disrupt the child’s learning. Understanding what drives the different behaviours that cause stress to a child can allow us to provide the supports they need and increase their quality of life," said Stevenson.

The study, which was conducted in conjunction with Ontario's Neurodevelopmental Disorders Network, was recently published in the journal Molecular Autism.

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