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Collaboration between the Autism Research Centre (UK) and the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation (USA)

By Teresa Tavassoli, PhD Candidate at the Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge and
By Sarah A. Schoen, PhD., OTR, Assistant Director of Research, SPD Foundation
Clinical Services Advisor, STAR (Sensory Therapies And Research) Center

The Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) Foundation recently initiated collaborative research with the acclaimed Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge and Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. Dr. Baron-Cohen is Director of the Autism Research Centre (ARC) in Cambridge and the Director of the Cambridge Lifespan Asperger Syndrome (AS) Service (CLASS), a clinic for adults with suspected AS.

Dr. Baron-Cohen is best known for conducting one of the first studies demonstrating that children with autism have delays in developing a theory of mind (Cognition, 1985) and for connecting a theory of mind deficit to joint attention problems (Brit J. Dev Psychol, 1987). Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states (e.g., belief, intent, desire, etc.) to oneself and others and understand that other people's beliefs, intentions, and desires may be different from one's own. Dr. Baron-Cohen and colleagues showed that an absence of joint attention at 18 months is a predictor of developing autism later (Brit. J. Psychiatry, 1992, 1996).

More recent research through the Autism Research Centre (ARC) is designed to understand the biomedical causes of autism spectrum conditions, and to develop new and validated methods for assessment and intervention (for more information please visit our website: autismresearchcentre.com). Like the SPD Foundation, the ARC fosters collaboration between scientists to accelerate their mission. The collaboration of Dr. Lucy Jane Miller and Dr. Sarah A. Schoen from the SPD Foundation and Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen and Teresa Tavassoli from Cambridge University is one example. Together we seek to understand the similarities and differences between children and adults with Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) and those with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

Study One

One study focused on investigating sensory issues in adults with ASC using the Sensory Processing Scale developed by Miller and Schoen (Schoen, et. al. 2008). The aim of this study was to characterize the sensory behaviors of adults with ASC and determine if there was a link between their sensory issues and their autistic traits. Based on anecdotal reports, including those from Temple Grandin, this study set out to investigate sensory over-responsivity in adults with ASC. The original version of the Sensory Processing Scales, called the Sensory Over-responsivity Scale (SenSOR) was used. We hypothesized that adults with ASC would report more over-responsivity, that is, that more items in their environments would be endorsed as overwhelming experiences.

Data were collected from 402 participants who took part in this online study: 221 adults with Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) (106 males/115 females) and 181 without ASC (52 males/129 females). The diagnosis of ASC was validated using the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) (Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Skinner, Martin, & Clubley, 2001). There were no significant difference between the ASC group and the control group on age or IQ.

Results suggest that adults with ASC reported more sensory sensitivity to stimuli in their environment as measured by the Sensory Over-Responsivity Scale (SenSOR; Schoen, et. al. 2008). While adults with ASC reported greater sensory over-responsivity overall, they also reported over-responsivity across all sensory modalities (vision, hearing, touch, smell, taste and movement). This is important since most adult sensory questionnaires, such as the Adolescent/Adult Sensory Profile, add scores from various modalities together. The SenSOR allowed examination of vision, touch, hearing, smell, taste and movement independently.

The finding of reported sensory over-responsivity in adults with ASC is also in line with the 'intense world' hypothesis (Markram, Rinaldi, & Markram, 2007), in which local neural microcircuits are hyper-functioning, resulting in hyper-perception, hyper-attention and hyper-emotionality. This implies that enhanced sensory sensitivity and sensory overload may be a consequence of these super-charged microcircuits. Future studies should investigate the underlying neural basis for the reported sensory over-responsivity.

In addition, both the ASC and control groups showed a positive relationship between the amount of sensitivity reported and autistic traits, such that greater sensory over-responsivity was associated with a greater number of autistic-related traits. This relationship is interesting given that sensory symptoms are not a diagnostic criterion for autism. However, there does indeed seem to be a link between sensory issues and autistic traits. Future studies should attempt to determine causality as well as include other clinical groups to determine the specificity of sensory over-responsivity to autism.

A paper reporting the results of this study is in preparation and we will inform you when it is published.

Study Two

We also have a current study exploring the sensory characteristics of children with ASC compared to children with SPD. Data have been collected on over 50 children with ASC, 50 children with SPD and 50 typically developing children. But we still need more! To take part in the project please visit our online research project and register yourself and your child. Then complete the on-line questionnaires about yourself and your child (see: ). We are very thankful to everyone who has already taken part in our research!

Please help us by participating in our online research project!

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