Examining the Latent Structure and Correlates of Sensory Reactivity in Autism: A Multi-site Integrative Data Analysis by the Autism Sensory Research Consortium
Background: Differences in responding to sensory stimuli, including sensory hyperreactivity (HYPER), hyporeactivity (HYPO), and sensory seeking (SEEK) have been observed in autistic individuals across sensory modalities, but few studies have examined the structure of these “supra-modal” traits in the autistic population.
Methods: Leveraging a combined sample of 3868 autistic youth drawn from 12 distinct data sources (ages 3-18 years and representing the full range of cognitive ability), the current study used modern psychometric and meta-analytic techniques to interrogate the latent structure and correlates of caregiver-reported HYPER, HYPO, and SEEK within and across sensory modalities. Bifactor statistical indices were used to both evaluate the strength of a “general response pattern” factor for each supra-modal construct and determine the added value of “modality-specific response pattern” scores (e.g., Visual HYPER). Bayesian random-effects integrative data analysis models were used to examine the clinical and demographic correlates of all interpretable HYPER, HYPO, and SEEK (sub)constructs.
Results: All modality-specific HYPER subconstructs could be reliably and validly measured, whereas certain modality-specific HYPO and SEEK subconstructs were psychometrically inadequate when measured using existing items. Bifactor analyses supported the validity of a supra-modal HYPER construct (ωH = .800) but not a supra-modal HYPO construct (ωH = .653), and supra-modal SEEK models suggested a more limited version of the construct that excluded some sensory modalities (ωH = .800; 4/7 modalities). Modality-specific subscales demonstrated significant added value for all response patterns. Meta-analytic correlations varied by construct, although sensory features tended to correlate most with other domains of core autism features and co-occurring psychiatric symptoms (with general HYPER and speech HYPO demonstrating the largest numbers of practically significant correlations).
Limitations: Conclusions may not be generalizable beyond the specific pool of items used in the current study, which was limited to caregiver report of observable behaviors and excluded multisensory items that reflect many “real-world” sensory experiences.
Conclusion: Of the three sensory response patterns, only HYPER demonstrated sufficient evidence for valid interpretation at the supra-modal level, whereas supra-modal HYPO/SEEK constructs demonstrated substantial psychometric limitations. For clinicians and researchers seeking to characterize sensory reactivity in autism, modality-specific response pattern scores may represent viable alternatives that overcome many of these limitations.
Keywords: Autism; Hyperreactivity; Hyporeactivity; Integrative data analysis; Item response theory; Measurement; Meta-analysis; Responsiveness; Sensitivity; Sensory features; Sensory seeking.