Exploring the Link between Sensory Reactivity, Anxiety and Related Mental Health Symptoms in Children with and without Autism
Around 80% of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) report sensory reactivity symptoms. Sensory hyper-reactivity can be disturbing for daily life and has been suggested to be associated to anxiety. Specifically previous research has found there to be a link between sensory hyper-reactivity and anxiety in autistic children. Those with more severe sensory symptoms have also been found to have higher anxiety levels than those with less severe sensory symptoms. However, most studies have previously used questionnaire measures of sensory reactivity and focussed on anxiety only.
Thus this study set out to investigate the potential link between sensory reactivity, anxiety and related mental health symptoms using an observational tool.
The study included 39 children with and without autism who were categorised according to their sensory reactivity; 16 children with sensory reactivity symptoms, and 23 without. We used a direct observation, the Sensory Processing Scale Assessment, to measure sensory reactivity, and the Behaviour Assessment System for Children (BASC) for measuring mental health symptoms, such as anxiety.
Children with sensory reactivity symptoms had significantly higher parent reported anxiety (p=.006), depression (p=.019), attention problems (p=.010), social skills (p=.019), withdrawal (p=.011) and adaptability (p=.020) compared to children without sensory reactivity symptoms. There were no significant differences in regards to aggression (p=.643), hyperactivity (p=.163), conduct problems (p=.246) and somatization (p=.456).
Children with and without autism who have sensory reactive symptoms have significantly more mental health symptoms compared to children without sensory reactivity symptoms. This study used a direct observation to measure sensory reactivity, future research should include more direct measures of mental health symptoms as well. Identifying a link between sensory reactivity and mental health symptoms has implications for treatment approaches.
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