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Autistic people’s social difficulties linked to abnormal processing of touch

18 November 2016

Besides problems with social interactions, it has been known for a while that many people with autism experience sensory abnormalities, such as hypersensitivity to sounds, light or touch.

With sensory impairment now officially included in diagnostic manuals, researchers have been trying to see if there’s a link between the sensory and social symptoms.

Such a link would make intuitive sense: for instance, it is easy to imagine that if someone experienced sensory stimuli more strongly, they would shun social interaction due to their complexity. More specifically, you would expect them to struggle with filtering out and making sense of social cues against the backdrop of sensory overload.

Past research has suggested that tactile hyper-responsiveness in particular may be relevant.

The correct processing of tactile information plays an important role in differentiating yourself from others (so-called “self-other discrimination”), a crucial requirement for social cognition.

In fact, touch may be unique among the senses because there is a clear difference in the tactile feedback received when you touch something compared to when you see someone else touch something.

Now a study in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience has used recordings of participants’ brain waves to provide more evidence that tactile sensations are processed differently in people with autism and that this may contribute to their social difficulties.

Read more about it on our Research Digest blog in a guest post by Helge Hasselmann.

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