Atypical reactions to the sensory environment are often reported in autistic individuals, with a high degree of variability across the sensory modalities. These sensory differences have been shown to promote challenging behaviours and distress in autistic individuals and are predictive of other functions including motor, social, and cognitive abilities. Preliminary research suggests that specific sensory differences may cluster together within individuals creating discrete sensory phenotypes. However, the manner in which these sensory differences cluster, and whether the resulting phenotypes are associated with specific cognitive and social challenges is unclear.
Short sensory profile data from 599 autistic children and adults between the ages of 1 and 21 years were subjected to a K-means cluster analysis. Analysis of variances compared age, adaptive behaviour, and traits associated with autism, attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and obsessive and compulsive disorder across the resultant clusters.
A five-cluster model was found to minimize error variance and produce five sensory phenotypes: (1) sensory adaptive, (2) generalized sensory differences, (3) taste and smell sensitivity, (4) under-responsive and sensation seeking, and (5) movement difficulties with low energy. Age, adaptive behaviour, and traits associated with autism, attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and obsessive and compulsive disorder were found to differ significantly across the five phenotypes.
The results were based on parent-report measures of sensory processing, adaptive behaviour, traits associated with autism, attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and obsessive and compulsive disorder, which may limit the generalizability of the findings. Further, not all measures are standardized, or psychometrically validated with an autism population. Autistic individuals with an intellectual disability were underrepresented in this sample. Further, as these data were obtained from established records from a large provincial database, not all measures were completed for all individuals.
These findings suggest that sensory difficulties in autistic individuals can be clustered into sensory phenotypes, and that these phenotypes are associated with behavioural differences. Given the large degree of heterogeneity in sensory difficulties seen in the autistic population, these sensory phenotypes represent an effective way to parse that heterogeneity and create phenotypes that may aid in the development of effective treatments and interventions for sensory difficulties.