Timing is key to understanding sensory, social issues in autism

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As the philosopher and psychologist William James described it, to a baby the world is “one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” Even for adults, this statement captures the essence of our sensory experiences, and highlights the complex and multisensory character of the world around us.

At any moment, a mélange of information bombards our senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and balance. One of the most important tasks for us — or, more accurately, for our brains — is to make sense of the incoming signals. Some of this information belongs to the same object or event — think of the sight and sound of a bouncing ball — and must be integrated or ‘bound,’ to be understood. Other pieces belong to different objects or events and need to be segregated.

Without appropriate integration and segregation of sensory cues, the world becomes the blooming and buzzing confusion to which James referred.

We gain a faster and more accurate perception of the world when we use information from multiple senses1. Picture yourself at a boisterous party. You are far more likely to ‘hear’ what a friend is saying several tables away if you watch her mouth movements and combine this visual cue with the weak auditory one2. Adept social communication requires the ability to grasp such multifaceted sensory input.

It has long been known that up to 90 percent of individuals with autism haveunique challenges in the way they process sensory information3. They may be either insensitive or oversensitive to sensory stimuli. They may also be ‘sensory seeking,’ stimulating their senses through repetitive behaviors such as twirling or hand flapping. These traits, which may encompass a number of the senses, are among those of autism spectrum disorder in the DSM-5, the latest revision of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”

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August 10, 2016

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