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Classification of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder by Sensory Subtype: A Case for Sensory-Based Phenotypes

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Abstract

This study examines whether sensory differences can be used to classify meaningful subgroups of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Caregivers of children with ASD aged 2–10 years (n = 228) completed the Short Sensory Profile. Model-based cluster analysis was used to extract sensory subtypes. The relationship of these subtypes to age, gender, autism symptom severity, and nonverbal intelligence quotient (IQ) was further explored. Four distinct sensory subtypes were identified: (a) sensory adaptive; (b) taste smell sensitive; (c) postural inattentive; and (d) generalized sensory difference. The sensory subtypes differ from each other on two dimensions: (a) the severity of reported sensory differences; and (b) the focus of differences across auditory, taste, smell, vestibular and proprioceptive domains. Examination of the clinical features of each subtype reveals two possible mechanisms of sensory disturbance in autism: (a) sensory hyperreactivity; and (b) difficulties with multisensory processing. Further, the sensory subtypes are not well explained by other variables such as age, gender, IQ, and autism symptom severity. We conclude that classification of children using sensory differences offers a promising method by which to identify phenotypes in ASD. Sensory-based phenotypes may be useful in identifying behavioral features responsive to specific interventions thereby improving intervention effectiveness. Further validation of the sensory-based phenotypes by establishing neural and physiological correlates is recommended. Autism Res 2014, 7: 322–333. © 2014 International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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