Children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are known to experience higher levels of sensory processing differences as well as anxiety, compared to the neurotypical population (NT). Both theory and evidence suggest that there is an interrelationship between sensory processing, anxiety and fear, and prediction abilities in autism. However, much more remains to be discovered about their relationship and especially underlying neural mechanisms. Thus, the purpose of the current study was to examine the behavioral relationship between sensory processing, fear and anxiety, prediction, and related brain activity in autistic children. To this end, 30 autistic children (ages 6-11 years) and 25 age-matched peers participated in a resting-state fMRI as well as various behavioral assessments of sensory processing, anxiety, fear, and intolerance of uncertainty (i.e., as an indirect measure of prediction). Between groups comparisons showed higher levels of sensory processing difference, fear/anxiety, sensory processing differences, and intolerance of uncertainty in autistic children when compared to NT controls. Among autistic children, a mediation analysis also revealed that intolerance of uncertainty was a significant mediator between sensory processing differences and both anxiety and fear, supporting past research and suggesting a role of prediction in this relationship. Network connectivity findings showed that cerebellar, higher order sensory, and limbic regions were significantly correlated with anxiety, sensory processing, and intolerance of uncertainty. These results add information concerning the neurophysiologic underpinnings of anxiety/fear, sensory processing, and prediction to prior research focusing on behavioral relationships between these constructs. These results have the potential to inform future clinical practice, demonstrating the need for a predictable clinical environment as well as thorough explanation of expected tasks for autistic children who experience sensory processing differences and resulting anxiety. Finally, these findings may suggest that addressing sensory and prediction difficulties has the potential to lead to improvements in anxiety in children with ASD. Addressing these issues through both neurological and/or therapeutic means may be possible in the future.
College and Department
David O. McKay School of Education
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Tindall, Kelsey Lee Ustach, "Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Sensory Processing and Anxiety in Autistic Children" (2021). Theses and Dissertations. 9121.
autism, anxiety, sensory experience, intolerance of uncertainty, prediction