Many autistic children perceive the sensory world around us differently. Some autistic children for example are overwhelmed by sounds or touch. This can make everyday situations such as visiting a busy supermarket a challenging task for families, and being overly sensitive has also been linked to anxiety.

A new project being conducted at the University of Reading’s Centre for Autism and funded by the charity MQ  will explore if sensory reactivity, such as being oversensitive to sounds, can predict later anxiety and related mental health symptoms.

The team will follow autistic children for 2 years, starting at age 4, asking caregivers questions about how their child reacts to the sensory world around them, such as sounds and lights. Children’s reactions towards sensory stimuli directly will also be observed, such as different sounds or a touch by a feather. Using questions about anxiety and related symptoms at all time points, the team will look at whether the relationship between sensory reactivity and anxiety and related mental health issues is stable over time. In addition, they will test if early sensory reactivity can predict later mental health symptoms.

Identifying whether sensory reactivity predicts mental health symptoms over time could lead to a clinical impact.  If sensory reactivity symptoms such as being oversensitive to sounds are identified and treated earlier, it might be possible to reduce the impact subsequent mental health problems, such as anxiety.

Moreover understanding sensory processing and the relationship to anxiety better will help us to understand autistic children and their needs better.

Dr Teresa Tavassoli, who is leading the research at the University of Reading explained more.

Q: What are you looking to find out in your research on sensory reactivity in people with Autism?

A: Sensory reactivity is part of the most recent diagnostic criteria for autism. Some autistic children for example are overwhelmed by sounds or touch.  This project will explore if sensory reactivity, such as being oversensitive to sounds, can predict later anxiety and related mental health symptoms. We will also test if early sensory reactivity can predict later mental health symptoms. Identifying whether sensory reactivity predicts mental health symptoms over time could lead to a clinical impact.

If sensory reactivity symptoms such as being oversensitive to sounds are identified and treated earlier, it might be possible to reduce the impact subsequent mental health problems, such as anxiety. Moreover understanding sensory processing and the relationship to anxiety better will help us to understand autistic children and their needs better.

Q: How did you first get interested in the topic?

A: I first got interested in sensory reactivity while working in a psychiatry in Germany, many years ago… There I met a young autistic woman who seemed to experience the world around her very differently, with a profound impact on her life.

Everyone experiences the world differently, but for some of us it seems to make everyday activities challenging. Therefore I felt it is important to study sensory reactivity and its impact on other areas of development, such as mental health.

Q: What has been the most surprising thing you’ve seen so far in your research?

The most surprising and interesting part of my research is working with different families and being able to meet so many children. As the saying goes: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”.

Every child is different, with or without autism, and I am learning something new from every family who is taking part in research, since they hold the true expertise.

A: What do parents think about the studies that you invite them to participate in? Do you get positive feedback?

So far, families seem to enjoy taking part in my research. We are trying to make every aspect of the research a game, to make it as enjoyable as possible. Some positive feedback was that the participant truly enjoyed  taking part, another family said that they found the research very interesting. Hopefully families continue to enjoy taking part in science.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the research or would like to take part, register your interest at:
http://www.reading.ac.uk/autism/research/ongoing-studies/sensory-perception-study/