Atypical sensory reactivity influences auditory attentional control in adults with autism spectrum disorders

Autism Res. 2016 Oct;9(10):1079-1092. doi: 10.1002/aur.1593. Epub 2016 Jan 18.


Frequent observations of atypical sensory reactivity in people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) suggest that the perceptual experience of those on the Spectrum is dissimilar to neurotypicals. Moreover, variable attention abilities in people with ASD, ranging from good control to periods of high distractibility, may be related to atypical sensory reactivity. This study used auditory event-related potential (ERP) measures to evaluate top-down and bottom-up attentional processes as a function of perceptual load, and examined these factors with respect to sensory reactivity. Twenty-five age and IQ-matched participants (ASD: 22.5 year, SD = 4.1 year; Controls: 22.8 year, SD = 5.1 year) completed the Adolescent/Adult Sensory Profile prior to performing a modified 3-stimulus (target, non-target, and distractor) auditory oddball target detection task EEG was recorded during task completion. ERP analysis assessed early sensory processing (P50, ∼50 ms latency; N100, ∼100 ms latency), cognitive control (N200, ∼200 ms latency), and attentional processing (P3a and P3b, ∼300 ms latency). Behavioral data demonstrates participants with ASD and neurotypical performed similarly on auditory target detection, but diverged on sensory profiles. Target ERP measures associated with top-down control (P3b latency) significantly increased under greater load in controls, but not in participants with ASD. Early ERP responses associated with bottom-up attention (P50 amplitude) were positively correlated to increased sensory sensitivity. Findings suggest specific neural mechanisms for increased perceptual capacity and enhanced bottom-up processing of sensory stimuli in people with autism. Results from participants with ASD are consistent with load theory and enhanced perceptual functioning. Autism Res 2016, 9: 1079-1092. © 2016 International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Keywords: EEG/ERP; N100; P1; P50; attention; autism; reactivity; sensory.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Young Adult