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Sensory Dysfunction and Problem Behaviors in Children with Autism Spectrum and Other Developmental Disorders

5 December 2008


Atypical responses to sensory input are increasingly recognized as a common feature of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). These unusual sensory responses have also been found among children with other developmental disabilities (DDs), and research has been mixed regarding the specificity of sensory dysfunction in autism. Furthermore, very little attention has been given to differences or similarities between Autistic Disorder (AD) and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) in sensory symptom presentations. Moreover, despite the widespread presence of sensory abnormalities in ASDs, there is a dearth of research regarding the behavioral sequelae of sensory dysfunction in this population. The original Sensory Profile (SP) and the Infant/Toddler Sensory Profile (ITSP) were utilized for measuring sensory symptoms and yielded factor, section, and quadrant scores. Initially, as quadrant scores have not been explored with a clinic-referred sample, the validity of Dunn's (1997) quadrant model was examined with a combined sample of clinic-referred children with AD, PDD-NOS, and other DDs, between 18-71 months of age. Results provided no support for a quadrant model, instead supporting a one-factor model. Quadrant scores were thus not used in additional analyses. Next, the sensory functioning of three groups of children (AD, PDDNOS, other DDs) was compared. Results were largely unsupportive of sensory dysfunction specificity among children with ASDs relative to the DD group, and no differences were noted between AD and PDD-NOS groups. Finally, the relationship between sensory symptoms and Internalizing/Externalizing Problems scores on the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) was investigated for the combined sample, yielding a significant positive relationship. For the SP, Vestibular and Emotionally Reactive scores predicted internalizing behaviors; and Touch and Sensory Seeking scores predicted externalizing behaviors. For the ITSP, Auditory, Tactile, Low Threshold-Context, Avoiding, and Low Registration scores predicted internalizing behaviors; and Tactile, Seeking, and Low Registration scores predicted externalizing behaviors. In conclusion, results supported neither the validity of Dunn's quadrant model nor the specificity of sensory dysfunction in autism. However, results indicated a link between sensory symptoms and problematic behaviors, with important implications for the multidisciplinary assessment and treatment of children with ASDs and other DDs.


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