Abstract

Importance: Sensory symptoms in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are commonly reported by researchers. However, an often overlooked sensory aspect of ASD is sensory discrimination in general, and somatosensory discrimination in particular.

Objective: To examine what has and what has not yet been learned concerning the somatosensory discrimination abilities of people with ASD and to reveal gaps warranting further research.

Design: Scoping review of clinical studies published 1995–2017 located through searches of PsycNET, PubMed, ERIC, and Google Scholar. Inclusion criteria were English-language peer-reviewed studies with (1) participants diagnosed with ASD, (2) a specific somatosensory discrimination measure, and (3) a comparison group. No age or intellectual exclusion criteria were established; studies were excluded if they were theoretical or descriptive, did not incorporate a control group, focused only on neurology or genetics, or used simple threshold detection measures or somatosensory measures integrated with other measures. The final search yielded 12 comparative articles discussing tactile and proprioceptive discrimination in people with ASD.

Results: Overall, most results showed atypical somatosensory discrimination in people with ASD, especially among young children. The relationship between sensory discrimination abilities and other sensory symptoms and ASD symptoms is briefly discussed.

Conclusions and Relevance: Heterogeneous findings concerning somatosensory discrimination in people with ASD shed light on underlying mechanisms of these disorders and can contribute to improvement of occupational therapy intervention for this population.

What This Article Adds: The occupational therapy evaluation of people with ASD can benefit from addressing somatosensory discrimination and its contribution to other clinical symptoms. This type of assessment can help improve intervention strategies for people with ASD by promoting a focus on the effect of discrimination deficits on daily function.

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