Autistic Kids Can Outgrow Critical Sensory Disconnect, Study Finds

By Karen Weintraub
Guest Contributor

For many people, the “read-my-lips” phenomenon happens almost unconsciously: in a crowded or noisy room, most of us can hear better by watching the person’s lips form the sounds.

That’s not true for many people with autism. They have long reported being unable to pay attention to words and visuals at the same time — which may explain why some on the spectrum avoid looking others in the eye. They have to limit their visual information so they can hear what the person is saying.

In the last few years, researchers have finally begun to take these reports seriously and to investigate them.

In a paper out this week in the journal Cerebral Cortex,  researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx showed that children with autism struggle to integrate information from multiple senses. High functioning children with autism, ages 5-12, didn’t get the benefit most people do from watching a person’s lips moving while speaking over background noise, according to research led by professor of pediatrics John Foxe.

Older children with autism did get this benefit, though, Foxe found, suggesting that their ability to integrate senses comes together by the mid-teens – at least in children described as high functioning, which generally means they have fewer language impairments. Autism is a spectrum of social and communication challenges and repetitive behaviors that can range from a little unusual to completely disabling. Some people are unable to speak or function in society; others are university professors.

This improvement in sensory integration with age may explain why some people seem to recover from or outgrow autism as they reach adolescence, Foxe said, though he didn’t follow the same kids over time, so he can’t be sure that those who fared the best were also the ones who got better at integrating sensory information.

He also can’t yet explain why this improvement happens. “Is it a brain maturation process, is it to do with socialization, is it to do with the interventions these kids are getting? The jury is out right now,” he said.

But he has no doubt that it’s profound.

He suspects that the difference in sensory integration may explain the difference between someone who is described as high- or low-functioning. Improve the sensory integration, and the person may be able function more typically.

That has implications for future treatment, and also how we educate kids on the spectrum today.

Foxe is doing some initial outreach to therapists who could help design methods for improving sensory integration.

He said he also thinks we need to make an effort to improve current classroom situations. If these kids are already struggling, it doesn’t make sense to put them in busy, chaotic classrooms and then expect them to learn, he said. Even simple things like headphones to block out background noise might make a major difference, he said.

If you have autism or a child on the spectrum, have you ever noticed this disconnect between senses? Did it get less pronounced with age? Have you found any tricks for working through the challenge? Please let us know.

Karen Weintraub is a Cambridge-based health/science journalist and frequent contributor to CommonHealth. She is on Twitter @kweintraub.

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  • Kim Hazelton/Theramingo

    As an OT for 20 years, I have seen this happen to many children. In my experience, SPD symptoms/issues have generally gotten worse during pre-pubescence and puberty, then tended to recede. I’ve never been certain if the child’s sensory processing skills had improved, or if the child’s coping/compensation skills had improved. I do believe that early intervention and proper educational placement with sufficient support are critical either way. And let’s not forget that traditional school may not always be the proper placement. My own son was homeschooled from middle school on, and now at 17 he is in his 3rd semester of college and is flourishing because he has more autonomy than in a traditional high school environment.

  • Yvonne Aileen

    My son is 13–almost 14– and I’ve noticed that if someone he doesn’t know well asks him a question and he neglects to answer it, and I prompt him, saying and pointing, “So and so just asked you [then I fill in the question],” he tends to look at ME when he provides the answer. I have tried re-directing him but it’s very hard for him to look at the other person when answering. Just an FYI for your research.

  • SLP – Barb

    Speech Language Pathologists (SLP) also work with these kiddos, helping them learn to decipher prosody (the “music” of language), body language, all aspects of non-verbal communication, and language that is more than just surface structures: i.e. idioms, irony, jokes, etc. An SLP and an OT (Occupational Therapist) can work together to really help these kids function and communicate better within all the various environments/situations they encounter every day.

  • amoll

    Since we don’t know which kids will outgrow sensory issues and which won’t, and since teens with sensory issues typically have low self-esteem if their sensory issues have gone unaddress or underaddressed, I’m concerned that people may think this means there’s no need for SI therapy, auditory therapy, etc., for kids with sensory processing disorder. Let’s get their sensory processing on track early enough to keep them motivated, feeling good about themselves, and functioning well. And let’s not forget that some kids experience a worsening of their sensory issues in the teen years. Raising a Sensory Smart Child is the only book I know of that has any info on teens and SPD (it has an entire chapter)–worth checking it out if you are dealing with a teen with significant sensory challenges.

  • Linda MacDonald

    Occupational therapists do sensory integration therapy. We are also the ones who look into the difficulties children with or without ASD have difficulty navigating busy environments and make recommendations (such as noise blocking headphones and sensory diets) to help them attend and learn.

  • w. Tennessee

    Yep that’s how it went with our Aspergers daughter.

  • SMW

    My ASD son would be perfect for a study of this nature. He is high functioning, normal to high intelligence, relatively social, though not appropriate most of the time, but speech and communication are his utter downfall. If I talk to him about a certain subject, even in a quiet room, he is often so disconnected he will answer my questions with sentences that do not have anything to do with the subject matter we are speaking about. This is constant. He is always telling us to stop talking “at” him, even simple requests from teachers and relatives get that response. He also has a speech impediment, and I am seeing as he learns to read, reading out loud is not going to be an option any time soon. The disconnect between his eyes, ears and mouth is increasingly apparent as he gets older. It is definitely not getting better yet. He will be 7 in a month and I am noticing as he enters 1st grade, his spectrum disorder is just now finally getting in the way of learning like a normal student. He is bright and was able to overcome it for Kindergarten because he was far ahead of the other kids, but I see this year is going to be an incredible challenge for him, as we struggle to keep him mainstream.

    • Belva

      My son is is the same. No sentences, but a large vocabulary. He struggles with 3 word sentences or more. He doesn’t read yet either. He will be in 1st grade in a “normal” class room for social time, then most of the afternoon with his special ed teacher and speech.

  • Dawn Marie Byrne

    I find that with stress levels high my family find it difficult to do this as it takes time and effort to block sensory problems out. Which is why meltdowns happen when they are stressed regardless of how old they are.