Autism is known for causing hypersensitivity, particularly to light and sound, which can turn painful. New research published on Wednesday offers insight on their enhanced senses.
Journal of Neuroscience reported the findings from a study led by Duje Tadin, an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester.
Researchers discovered that children with autism can perceive high-contrast motion twice as fast as typically developing peers. The average time to detect simple movement for an autistic child was roughly 25 milliseconds (one-one thousandth of a second), while the average of a typically developing child was close to 50 milliseconds.
“This dramatically enhanced ability to perceive motion is a hint that the brains of individuals with autism keep responding more and more as intensity increases,” said Jennifer Foss-Feig, one of the study’s authors and a postdoctoral fellow at the Child Study Center at Yale University.
20 children with autism and 26 typically developing children, ages 8 to 17, participated in the study by viewing black and white bars and indicating which direction they were moving.
Previous examinations revealed superior visual abilities, but according to the study’s authors, no prior research found a link between autism and moving images.
Heightened senses can be advantageous in quick reflex exercises, giving autistic children quicker reaction times, but they can also create greater volatility.
“If the processing of our vision, hearing, and other sensory systems is abnormal in some way, it will have a cascading effect on other brain functions,” said Carissa Cascio, assistant professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University.
The study’s authors noted that hypersensitive perception is a neural signature for a brain rendered unable to control the flow of sensory stimuli. The increase of information is a hallmark of epilepsy, a condition strongly linked to autism (estimates suggest up to 33 percent of individuals with autism also have epilepsy).
“You may be able to see better, but at some point the brain really is over responding. A strong response to high intensity stimuli in autism could be one reason for withdrawal,” Cascio said.
The study builds on previous findings of autistic people processing stimuli in contrasting form compared to non-autistic peers. Autistic people can detect simple images more rapidly, but usually suffer deficiencies in complex subjects, including facial recognition, walking and other biological movements. Wednesday’s findings may offer an explanation for both sensory overload and other deficits usually exhibited by autistic people.
This writer was not immune to the power of sound and light. Fire alarms were magnified in amplitude, requiring advance notice of school fire drills so proper measures of inhibiting its waves of sound could be implemented.
In the present era, elevated abilities to sound remain intact. Conversations that would be normally go undetected are captured by my ears, and pinpointing songs at public venues like restaurants and stores becomes a regular trait.
In an ironic twist, facial recognition is not a challenge in my daily interaction. Associating names with faces is less reliable, due to varying levels of contact among individuals, but confidence in locating complex images has yet to be compromised as data storage diversifies.
With any research on autism, further inquiries will be necessary to establish a firm link, but the study does illuminate the limits and benefits for people on the autism spectrum. Even the report itself could lead to follow-ups, such as the potential impact for low-contrast movement procedures; there was a negligible difference in identifying subtle movements between autistic children and typical children.