Study confirms that sensory features are an early behavioural marker of autism
The Sector > Research > Study confirms that sensory features are an early behavioural marker of autism

Study confirms that sensory features are an early behavioural marker of autism

by Freya Lucas

January 09, 2023

New results from a University of Southern California (USC) led study reveal that many children who have elevated sensory traits which seemingly worsen as they grow from infants/toddlers into school-aged children go on to be diagnosed with autism. 


82 per cent of children with these elevated traits were diagnosed with autism or showed elevated autistic traits by the time they reached between three and six years of age, with the data demonstrating the strong association between children’s early sensory trajectories and later sensory challenges impacting their developmental and behavioural outcomes. 


The results were published online recently in Development and Psychopathology.


“While every autistic child is unique, previous research suggests that autism has sensory subtypes — consistent patterns of over- and under-reactivity when it comes to sight, sound, touch and movement,” said the article’s lead author Dr Yun-Ju Claire Chen. “These results not only show how sensory preferences shift throughout early childhood for all kids, but reveal particular patterns tied to various later clinical and behavioral outcomes.”


For six years, as part of the North Carolina Child Development Survey project, researchers followed more than 1,500 children born in North Carolina in 2013. The researchers asked parents about their child’s sensory behaviours at three points during three developmental stages: 


  • as infants/toddlers (6-19 months old); 
  • as preschoolers (3-4 years old); and, 
  • as school-aged children (6-7 years old). 


Parents were also asked about their child’s autistic symptoms, about various developmental concerns and whether or not their child had received any diagnoses.


Dr Chen and her colleagues studied a subset of 389 trajectories to better understand how the child’s sensory behaviours were perceived to change over time, and whether any of those change patterns were linked to clinical and adaptive/maladaptive outcomes as the child grew to be school-aged.


The researchers found that 62 per cent of trajectories were generally stable or improved, with mild to moderate sensory features and some challenges in certain areas. They categorised 35 percent of trajectories as “Adaptive — All Improving,” with very low sensory concerns and overall better outcomes at school-age.


But three percent of children had an “Elevated — All Worsening” trajectory, characterised by highly elevated sensory features and dramatically worsening patterns over time, with significant challenges across behavioural domains at school age. 


82 percent of “Elevated — All Worsening” children received an autism diagnosis or showed elevated autistic traits between 3-6 years of age. The group is composed of significantly more boys and of children of parents who have lower educational attainment. Children meeting this group’s criteria also had a higher likelihood of an ADHD diagnosis or concerns, and significantly higher levels of emotional concerns such as anxiety.


Because the “Elevated — All Worsening” subtype could first be detected at the 6-19 month measuring point, the researchers say sensory features should be considered a useful early behavioural marker of autism and associated challenges later in life.


“This study confirms that early childhood sensory experiences are strongly associated with clinical and behavioral outcomes later in life,” said Associate Dean and Chair Grace Baranek, the article’s senior author.


“By characterising children according to their early sensory development, clinicians can more efficiently and accurately identify those who are more likely to experience developmental challenges once they reach school age,” Ms Baranek said. “And as clinicians pay more and more attention to pediatric sensory traits as part of a holistic health profile, children at elevated likelihood of autism can be referred to critical services at earlier junctures in order to access interventions that can optimise their sensory skills and social participation in the long run.” 


To access the research in full, please see here. 

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