By Robert DePaolo
This article discusses an apparent contradiction in the sensory behaviors of autistic children, specifically their tendency to both avoid input and seek it out. An explanation is put forth that this apparent conflict can help explain the nature of autism as well as future prospects for treatment.
Most autistic individuals have significant language deficits and as a result can’t tell us very much about their “take” on experience, their awareness of having a developmental disorder, the ways in which they cope or their views of the outside world. While some people diagnosed with autism have written books and given speeches (the so-called high functioning group), their accounts might be less than definitive. That is not necessarily because they have been misdiagnosed but because by definition their involvement is mild. Otherwise they could not integrate and/or conceptualize their world enough to write and talk about their experiences in the first place.
The presumption that high-functioning autistic persons can tell us something about the experiences of more severely impaired clients (one that permeates autistic research) presents a significant problem with respect to gaining a true understanding of the disorder. Since high-functioning autistic persons can communicate, label objects and experiences, compartmentalize and express emotion through words rather than motion that would, if for no other reason than that they expend far less energy in adapting to their environment, distinguish them from their less verbal and nonverbal counterparts.
To understand the experiences of the classically autistic person can only resort to observations of nonverbal behavior in drawing inferences about the functions of brain and body. One of the more fascinating as well as diagnostically indicative features of non-verbal, autistic persons is the way in which they deal with sensory input. There is a plethora of research devoted to this topic. For example Rosenhall, Johannson et. al. (1988), Scharre, Creedon et. al. (1992) and Takarae, Minshew, et.al. (2004) and Belmonte, M (2000) have shown that autistics have a delayed reaction to input which interferes their timing with regard to responsiveness, memory consolidation and social interaction. Dawson (1989) has shown that this delay in processing creates problems with arousal levels such that the autistic individual often feels overwhelmed, unable to make sense of sensory inputs (unless the patterns are over-learned) and therefore learns to be generally stimulus avoidant. Notwithstanding research findings most of the above trends can be discerned through simple observation. In fact observation and inference are in some instances the most accurate ways to determine cause-effect patterns in autistic development.