Background: Unusual responses to sensory stimuli are seen in many children with autism. Their presence was highlighted both in early accounts of autism and in more recent first-person descriptions. There is a widespread belief that sensory symptoms characterize autism and differentiate it from other disorders. This paper examines the empirical evidence for this assumption.
Method: All controlled experimental laboratory investigations published since 1960 were identified through systematic searches using Medline/PubMed and PsycInfo search engines. A total of 48 empirical papers and 27 theoretical or conceptual papers were reviewed.
Results: Sensory symptoms are more frequent and prominent in children with autism than in typically developing children, but there is not good evidence that these symptoms differentiate autism from other developmental disorders. Certain groups, including children with fragile X syndrome and those who are deaf-blind, appear to demonstrate higher rates of sensory symptoms than children with autism. In reviewing the evidence relevant to two theories of sensory dysfunction in autism, over- and under-arousal theory, we find that there is very little support for hyper-arousal and failure of habituation in autism. There is more evidence that children with autism, as a group, are hypo-responsive to sensory stimuli, but there are also multiple failures to replicate findings and studies that demonstrate lack of group differences.
Conclusions: The use of different methods, the study of different sensory modalities, and the changing scientific standards across decades complicate interpretation of this body of work. We close with suggestions for future research in this area.