Tactile cortical responses and association with tactile reactivity in young children on the autism spectrum

Abstract Background Unusual behavioral reactions to sensory stimuli are frequently reported in individuals on the autism spectrum (AS). Despite the early emergence of sensory features (< age 3) and their potential impact on development and quality of life, little is known about the neural mechanisms underlying sensory reactivity in early childhood autism. Methods Here, we used electroencephalography (EEG) to investigate tactile cortical processing in young children aged 3–6 years with autism and in neurotypical (NT) children. Scalp EEG was recorded from 33 children with autism, including those with low cognitive and/or verbal abilities, and 45 age- and sex-matched NT children during passive tactile fingertip stimulation. We compared properties of early and later somatosensory-evoked potentials (SEPs) and their adaptation with repetitive stimulation between autistic and NT children and assessed whether these neural measures are linked to “real-world” parent-reported tactile reactivity. Results As expected, we found elevated tactile reactivity in children on the autism spectrum. Our findings indicated no differences in amplitude or latency of early and mid-latency somatosensory-evoked potentials (P50, N80, P100), nor adaptation between autistic and NT children. However, latency of later processing of tactile information (N140) was shorter in young children with autism compared to NT children, suggesting faster processing speed in young autistic children. Further, correlational analyses and exploratory analyses using tactile reactivity as a grouping variable found that enhanced early neural responses were associated with greater tactile reactivity in autism. Limitations The relatively small sample size and the inclusion of a broad range of autistic children (e.g., with low cognitive and/or verbal abilities) may have limited our power to detect subtle group differences and associations. Hence, replications are needed to verify these results. Conclusions Our findings suggest that electrophysiological somatosensory cortex processing measures may be indices of “real-world” tactile reactivity in early childhood autism. Together, these findings advance our understanding of the neurophysiological mechanisms underlying tactile reactivity in early childhood autism and, in the clinical context, may have therapeutic implications.
Molecular Autism. 2021 Apr 01;12(1):26