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Researchers Explore Perception of Touch in People With Autism

Extreme sensory sensitivity is a hallmark trait of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, led by associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Dr. Carissa Cascio, are exploring how the sensation of touch is experienced differently by people on the autism spectrum.

“Sensory differences in individuals with autism are something that clinicians and researchers have observed for a long time,” Cascio said, according to a report by Overton County “But most of the research has focused on vision and hearing because of their roles in social communication, which is the core deficit in autism.”

Based on their research, Cascio said she and her team believe that in people with autism, there is “something different about how sensory processing is connecting with the emotional parts of the brain. We don’t necessarily think it has to do with individuals with autism having differences in their fundamental experiences of touch, but somehow their brain is interpreting it differently in terms of how rewarding or aversive it is.”

In one experiment, Cascio and her team attached a heating pad to people with and without autism, applying a safe but uncomfortably warm temperature to each participant’s calf for 15 seconds. Both groups rated their pain level a 7 out of 10, though brain images showed that neural reactions to the pain lasted 30 seconds in the neurotypical participants, and only 10 seconds in those with autism, suggesting their pain had disappeared before the pad was removed.

Cascio said she is “hopeful that if there is something different in the way the brain is connecting sensory and emotional information in individuals with autism, we can use that to inform intervention approaches early in the individual’s life.”

In addition to studying touch, Cascio and her team are exploring an individual’s perception of their emotional state may be influenced by sensory perception to internal cues, such as digestive signals or a change in heart rate.



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