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Study: Sensory Challenges in Early Childhood Likely to Result in Autism Diagnosis

May 11, 2022

A study has been released in the Journal of Child Development exploring the developmental patterns of sensory trajectories experienced by kids throughout their early childhood.

Study: Sensory Challenges in Early Childhood Likely to Result in Autism Diagnosis 

The study was conducted in North Carolina, USA, of a birth cohort of more than 1,000 autistic children, ages ranging from infancy to those entering first grade. Parents of the kids in question were tasked with recording the severity of the reactions and the developmental outcome.

The study was compared between autistic kids or those who showed heightened autistic traits and children who were non-autistic but showed other developmental challenges. The study found it was easy to differentiate between the two.

Testing hyper-hyporesponsiveness

The study tested children’s hyper-hyporesponsiveness to sensory changes. It is well known that children with autism may experience sensory challenges. A lot of the time autistic children either feel hypersensitive to stimuli or the complete opposite. 

Hyper-responsiveness refers to when a child is incredibly sensitive to changes in their environment that affect their senses. For example, children who are hyper-responsive are likely to be picky eaters, sensitive to certain lighting, react negatively to unexpected touch, hate getting their hands messy, and are sensitive to certain textiles of clothing. 

Hyporesponsiveness or sensory seeking refers to when a child is under-responsive to sensory input. Children who are hyporesponsive usually crave touch, love to get messy, and enjoy intense flavors of food. Hyporesponsiveness in autistic kids may look like, making loud noises, rocking back and forth, and stimming.

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Autistic people and non-autistic people generally tend to experience a wide range of hyper-hyporesponsiveness. However, the study found: “More sensory hyper- and hyporesponsiveness at infancy followed by steeper increases differentially predicted more autistic traits at school age.”

Not only did the study find severe hyper-hyporesponsiveness was likely to lead to an autism diagnosis at school starting age, it also found children with parents of higher education were less likely to go through these intense sensory challenges.

According to the study: “These findings highlight the importance of tracking sensory patterns from infancy for facilitating early identification of associated challenges and tailored support for families.”

Ways to accommodate sensory sensitivity

Strategies for accommodating sensory sensitivities depend on how children react to sensory information. Here are some ways you can help your child if they are experiencing sensory overload or are seeking more stimulation. 

If your child is feeling overwhelmed by sensory input, you might consider:

  • Noise-canceling headphones to help with sound sensitivities
  • Create a quiet place for your child to go when they feel overwhelmed
  • Talk to people about being able to accommodate your child if you are going somewhere specific so they may make an experience less stressful for both you and your child

If your child is sensory seeking and starts to get agitated at the lack of sensory input, you may consider:

  • Letting your child play with toys that have extreme texture, for example, play dough or slime
  • If your child tends to ignore sounds, speak loudly and in an exaggerated manner to get their attention
  • Create games to play outside that will require your child to listen, smell, and touch things that you can find in a garden or park

Studies like these remind us of all the research that is constantly going on to further our knowledge of autism spectrum disorder and ways we can help our kids and each other as a community to create the best future for our children.


Chen Y, Sideris J, Watson L, Crais E. R, Baranek G.T.(2022, March 2). Developmental trajectories of sensory patterns from infancy to school age in a community sample and associations with autistic traits.


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