a wide-eyed boy leaning on a man's shoulderSensitivity to external stimuli is one of the hallmarks of autism spectrum disorders. To better understand the sensory issues of people with autism, researchers designed and tested a new questionnaire that pinpoints an individual’s under- and over-sensitivities. The study finds that people who are more strongly autistic are more sensitive the world around them.

Most sensitivity studies rely on parent reports, but sensory perceptions are subjective, so the researchers created a questionnaire to accurately identify the ways in which an individual experienced sensations from their five senses. The questionnaire included statements like “I wouldn’t notice a 10-degree difference in temperature of the weather” and “I would be able to see the individual blades in a rotating fan even if it was at maximum speed.”

The researchers tested the questionnaire with a group of 196 adults with autism and 163 adults without autism. The participants rated how much they agreed or disagreed with statements about their abilities to see, feel, touch, taste, and smell. The researchers also used a second test to measure autism traits in both groups of participants.

People with autism reported greater sensitivity to auditory, visual, tactile, and gustatory stimuli, but they were not more sensitive to olfactory stimuli. Additionally, people who scored higher on the autism traits assessment were more likely to be oversensitive than those with lower scores. The women in both groups of participants were more sensitive than the men.

Problems with hypersensitivity may cause people with autism to withdraw from social situations. Better understanding an individual’s specific sensitivities could lead to targeted interventions and improved methods for coping with sensory stress.

Given the difference in sensitivity between men and women, the researchers suggest that it is worth studying the different manifestations of autism between men and women—most autism research focuses on men.

This research is published in the journal Molecular Autism.

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