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Sensory Processing and Cognitive Functioning in ASD

Sensory processing differences have long been seen as a meaningful component of ASD and were recently recognized as a key diagnostic feature. Past research has investigated sensory processing differences in ASD in a number of ways, including by self-report, parent-report, behavioral observation, and measurement of the autonomic nervous system (responsible for our body’s “fight or flight” response to a stressor, such as aversive sensory input).

Very little research has examined how these sensory differences in ASD impact specific areas of adaptive functioning. A particularly important concern for children with ASD is the impact of aversive sensory stimuli (e.g., noise) on cognitive and academic performance. Schools are a key learning environment, but the substantial degree of sensory stimuli in classroom settings may be over-stimulating and disruptive to learning. Past research into the consequences of noise on cognition have observed varying effects depending on the type and degree of noise being studied, underscoring the complexity of this relationship. The impact of noise on cognitive functioning may be especially important and complex in individuals with sensory processing difficulties, such as many individuals with ASD.

The present study utilizes a multi-method approach to investigate the relationship between noise and cognitive performance in ASD. To do this we are comprehensively characterizing sensory responsivity through autonomic measurement in children with ASD and a matched group of typically developing peers. We are then relating these laboratory findings to the children’s real-world experiences by measuring their subjective appraisals, as well as parents’ observations of their children’s reactions to sensory experiences. To begin to model the impact on academic functioning, we are investigating the relationship between noise (a pervasive and challenging sensory stimulus) and performance by experimentally manipulating noise levels and task difficulty during cognitive measures. Finally, we will concurrently collect sympathetic and parasympathetic responses during the cognitive tasks to explore the potentially mechanistic role of autonomic reactivity.

This project is funded in part by an Organization for Autism Research Graduate Student Grant awarded to Jessica Keith.

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