Do people with autism have unreliable sensory perceptions?

The last few years have seen an explosion of research into the world of autism spectrum disorders, and now new research has shown that some of its symptoms may be tied to the way people process sensory information.

Autism is strongly associated with non-standard sensory perceptions — dislike of loud noises, or a love of physical pressure. Research published this week in the journal Neuron delved into what happens to the brain when people's senses are stimulated.

They analysed individual's brains while stimulating their vision, hearing, and sense of touch. While non-autistic adults had consistent responses from trial to trial, those with autism had unpredictable responses. The neural response to basic, sensory information is unreliable. The adults with autism also had a lower signal-to-noise ratio within the brain.

"Within the autism research community, most researchers are looking for either a dysfunctional brain region or inadequate connections between brain regions," says lead study author Ilan Dinstein of Carnegie Mellon University in a press release. "We're taking a different approach and thinking about how a general characteristic of the brain could be different in autism — and how that might lead to behavioral changes."

The researchers believe that autism may be a result of unreliable brain activity during development. If the same kind of unreliability that hits the sensory areas of the brain is also happening elsewhere, it paints a picture that could explain the social and language difficulties also associated with the disorder. It could also lead to a better way of accurately diagnosing those who suffer from it.

The study itself was rather small, running just 14 adult patients with the disorder, 14 without — but the research team is planning to expand to studying younger people next. And it could provide a much needed key into our understanding of the autism spectrum, and identifying it as soon as possible.

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