The roles of sensory hyperreactivity and hyporeactivity in understanding infant fearfulness and emerging autistic traits


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Existing evidence indicates that atypical sensory reactivity is a core characteristic of autism, and has been linked to both anxiety (and its putative infant precursor of fearfulness) and repetitive behaviours. However, most work has used cross-sectional designs and not considered the differential roles of hyperreactivity and hyporeactivity to sensory inputs, and is thus limited in specificity.

161 infants with and without an elevated likelihood of developing autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were followed from 10 to 36 months of age. Parents rated an infant precursor of later anxiety (fearfulness) using the Infant Behaviour Questionnaire at 10 and 14 months, and the Early Childhood Behavioural Questionnaire at 24 months, and sensory hyperreactivity and hyporeactivity at 10, 14 and 24 months using the Infant Toddler Sensory Profile. Domains of autistic traits (restrictive and repetitive behaviours; RRB, and social communication interaction, SCI) were assessed using the parent-rated Social Responsiveness Scale at 36 months. Cross-lagged models tested (a) paths between fearfulness and hyperreactivity at 10–24 months, and from fearfulness and hyperreactivity to later autism traits, (b) the specificity of hyperreactivity effects by including hyporeactivity as a correlated predictor.

Hyperreactivity at 14 months was positively associated with fearfulness at 24 months, and hyperreactivity at 24 months was positively associated with SCI and RRB at 36 months. When hyporeactivity was included in the model, paths between hyperreactivity and fearfulness remained, but paths between hyperreactivity and autistic traits became nonsignificant.

Our findings indicate that alterations in early sensory reactivity may increase the likelihood of showing fearfulness in infancy, and relate to later social interactions and repetitive behaviours, particularly in individuals with a family history of autism or ADHD.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines
Early online date4 Jan 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 4 Jan 2024


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