Sensory reactivity in children with and without autism

Date of Completion

January 2002


Psychology, Clinical




Using the Sensory Survey, a 103-item scale measuring overreactivity, underreactivity and stimulus seeking behavior, abnormal reactivity to sensory stimuli was shown to be common in autism but not in typical children. The Sensory Survey was administered to parents of 222 children with Pervasive Developmental Disorders and parents of 195 typical children. Parents were also administered the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales and the Kinsbourne Focus of Attention Rating Scale. The Sensory Survey had high reliability for both groups. There were significant diagnostic differences in reactivity between Autistic Disorder, PDD-NOS, and typical children, with age as a covariate. Pairwise comparisons indicated that children with Autistic Disorder demonstrated the most overreactivity, undereactivity and seeking behavior, followed by children with PDD-NOS, and that typical children demonstrated the least overreactivity, underreactivity, and seeking behavior. Results also indicated significant diagnostic differences in overfocused attention, while covarying for age, with the highest scores found in Autistic Disorder and the lowest in typical children. Overfocused attention was most highly correlated with overreactivity to sensory stimuli. Hierarchical regression analyses indicated that the Sensory Survey adds unique variance to adaptive functioning impairments in autism, but in not typical children. Specifically, stimulus seeking behavior contributed to communication impairments; underreactivity contributed to socialization impairments; and both underreactivity and stimulus seeking behaviors contributed to impairments in daily living skills. Age trends in reactivity were found for children with autism and typical children. In PDD, overreactivity showed an increase with age and stimulus seeking behaviors showed a decrease with age. In typical children, there was also a slight trend for a decrease in seeking behaviors with age. Factor analyses showed items to cluster by reactivity rather than sensory modality for both groups. Results of a discriminant function analysis revealed a 90% predicted group membership rate for PDD and typical children based on scale mean scores. Results indicate that abnormal sensory reactivity is prevalent in children with autism and relates to adaptive impairment and overfocused attention. Abnormal responses to sensory stimuli do not appear to be prevalent in typical children. ^