Opinion Conversations on the science of autism research.

Mothers of children with autism share their sensory problems

by  /  2 May 2014

A small study published 3 April in Molecular Autism found that 98 percent of mothers of children with autism have unusual responses to sensory stimuli, including light, sound and touch.

Up to 90 percent of children with autism show sensory problems, fixating on or avoiding certain smells, sounds or textures. As a result, the newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists abnormal sensitivity in one or more of the five senses as a core diagnostic feature of autism.

Unaffected siblings of children with autism have been reported to have atypical sensory responses, but the new study is the first to examine parents.

The researchers recruited 50 mothers of children with autism from schools and support groups in South Wales, U.K. None of the women have autism, and a multidisciplinary team confirmed their children’s diagnoses. (The researchers did not include fathers in the study because few responded to recruitment efforts.)

The women filled out the Adolescent/Adult Sensory Profile, a 60-question test for rating sensory experiences, such as their comfort with physical proximity to another person. The researchers compared the women’s answers with those from the general population from another study.

Overall, only 2 percent of the mothers of children with autism gave standard responses to the questions compared with 68 percent of the general population.

The women fall into one or more of four sensory subtypes, defined by high or low sensitivity to stimulation, such as noise or touch, and whether they actively seek or avoid it, or passively tolerate it.

In all, 31 of the women, or 62 percent, have high scores in the ‘low registration’ category, meaning that they either miss sensory stimuli entirely or respond to it more slowly than average. And 30 women, or 60 percent, have low scores on ‘sensation seeking,’ meaning that they do not seek out extra stimulation.

Also, 22 of the women are hypersensitive but tolerate circumstances, such as a bustling crowd or a feeling of vertigo, that make them feel uncomfortable. And 24 actively avoid sensory stimuli that they find unpleasant, such as loud music, instead seeking out familiar foods and surroundings.

Unusual sensory responses are not unique to autism — they’re also found in people with anxiety, depression, schizophrenia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It’s possible that the mothers of children with autism are anxious, accounting for their unusual sensory responses, the researchers say.

It’s unclear whether genetics contributes to these sensory patterns, but a larger study examining the relationship between unusual sensory response, autism traits and additional disorders in family members may clarify the link.

  • Tina

    My child is super sensitive to all of the things you mentioned and I am the same.I do my best to avoid situations that cause me great anxiety

    • Tim Newman

      I would be very happy to take the survey. Any other like-minded Father’s out there?

    • Mari B.

      They should also look at the fathers too. My husband suffers from anxiety while I suffer from depression. So that’s a double doozie.

  • susan chaple

    i think your picture is very interesting, the woman is bent over, head in hands, frowning, and the last word of the sentence is ‘problems’ ! One BIG reason i think negativity kicks in early with diagnosis on any stage of the autistic spectrum is the constant ‘drip drip’ of negative comments hurled at the families with any autism in it … think it over are YOU really the expert of autism, or the interpreter ? The experts are those on it, then their parents … remember that , thanks Ben* & Susan Chaple (Perrie *)

  • Joanna Deacon

    The trouble with this report is that it is not clear whether the mothers who ‘did not have Autism’ had actually been tested for Autism before or during this study. If a mother has sensory issues, it stands to reason they may be on the spectrum as well, but may not realise it themselves, as women’s place on the spectrum has been overlooked/misunderstood until very recently. Therefore, it is very unfortunate to summize that sensory issues may occur due to anxiety, ADHD, depression, schizophrenia (a lot of autistic women have received a schizophrenia diagnosis before now, because for a long time it was thought women couldn’t be autistic, and schizophrenia is a useful umbrella term) since the first three are often concomitant with Autism, and therefore these women should be evaluated further for Autism, given that we know it is hereditary. My doctor had me down as anxious or depressed for a long time; turns out I have Aspergers. Thank goodness I would never have tried anti-depressants, nor did I take his conclusions as correct. I knew something else was the issue. Unfortunately, where we live, it is often assumed, in a highly off-the-cuff fashion that children become autistic because their mothers are depressed (!), so it’s best to be a little clearer as to what these results mean. Has Autism been thoroughly ruled out in this group??

    • gregboustead

      Hi Joanna,

      The paper states that the mothers were not diagnosed with autism, but we’ve contacted the researchers to clarify what was known or tested with that group in the study. They or we will post that information here.

      Thanks for your comment,
      community manager, SFARI.org

  • pamelafeliciano

    I’m really surprised by this result. It would have been interesting if the authors could have reported sensory profiles on the children as well to test if there was any similarity in the type of sensory problems between mother and child. My son with ASD is extremely sensory-seeking. I don’t think I share any of these characteristics or even mild tendencies, although I haven’t taken the questionnaire.

  • Chantal

    I’m very keen to see the answer to Joanna’s question posted, as it was the first question that came to my mind also. Shortly after my 2 year old daughter was diagnosed with ASD, I was also diagnosed as being on the spectrum. I certainly think that I share many of my daughters sensory seeking/aversion behaviours and I believe my sister and my mother also have strong sensory differences – stronger even than my own.

  • Mirko Uljarevic

    Dear Joanna (and other readers),

    Thank you for your interesting question. As stated in out paper, none of the mothers had a diagnosis of ASD. As a part of background interview (either in person or via telephone) mothers were asked specifically whether they have been diagnosed with any psychiatric and/or neurodevelopmental condition (including ASD) and whether they currently or have in the past received any kind of treatment for the existing condition(s). Two mothers who stated that they had been diagnosed with ASD or considering going through the diagnostic process were not included in this study.

    In terms of research, there are several studies that found association between sensory atypicalities and ASD traits in general population (Horder et al., 2014; Robertson & Simmons, 2012; Tavassoli et al. 2013). However, we would like to point out that sensory atypicalities are by no means specific to ASD population. As mentioned in our paper, sensory atypicalities have been noted in individuals with anxiety and depression (Hofmann & Bitran, 2007; Farrow & Coulthard, 2012), schizophrenia (Brown, Cromwell, Filion, Dunn, & Tollefson, 2002), ADHD (Ermer & Dunn, 1998) and other neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental conditions. This raises the question of specificity of the ASD traits-sensory atypicalities relationship. For example, Horder et al. (2013) found that in addition to being associated with ASD traits, sensory atypicalities were also associated with trait anxiety, history of mental illness and history of migraine and these relationships stayed significant even after controlling for the effects of ASD traits in partial correlations. It is important to point out that the finding of the association between ASD traits and sensory atypicalities is not universal as for example, Crane et al. (2009) did not find this association in TD adults nor was this association found in ASD adults (Crane et al., 2006; Kern et al., 2006). Also, as we noted in the paper, a study by De La Marche et al. (2012) has found that non-affected siblings of ASD adolescents exhibited sensory atypicalities (less sensory seeking) when compared to typically developing controls.
    In any case, the finding that 49 of 50 (98%) mothers from our study had AASP scores that were atypical can not be simply explained by the possible ASD traits-sensory atypicalities association because, as we noted, none of parents from our study has received ASD diagnosis and the reason for such high frequency of sensory atypicalities are certainly more complex. Our findings, as we noted are important both as sensory atypicalities are risk factors for affective disorders, both directly or indirectly through the possible association with maladaptive coping styles. Indeed, both higher levels of affective disorders and maladaptive coping has been found in parents of children with ASD, however, reasons for such high incidence are currently not well understood.

    Apologies for a slight delay in replying,I hope that this answered your question and provided some additional background and thanks again for the question. This is the first study and the evidence has been published at a time when there is a slow but growing understanding of the different symptoms seen in women than in men. This study helps to bring sensory features into the foreground but there still needs to be more research about the reason for these features.

    In case you have any further questions please don’t hesitate to ask either here or contact me directly (you can find the email address in the paper, it is an open access journal)

    best regards,

  • Kerrie Green

    I think the stressed of having a child on the spectrum, can contribute to a parent reacting to certain stimuli in an atypical fashion. Parenting a child with autism changes you and perhaps makes you more sensitive to noise etc than you may have been if you did not have a child on the spectrum? I have a 31 year old daughter who is severely disabled by her autism I know I am a very different person than I was before I travelled this journey with my girl.

    • Marnie La’aiva

      That is so true Kerrie. As a mum, you become so much more aware of things around you & your child. A small survey too.

    • Rose K

      That is so true, Kerrie. The stresses of autism/spectrum disorders in the family contributes to the feelings of anxiety, depression and avoidance of certain situations that may cause additional stresses. The stress is almost of a traumatic nature. We cannot predict unpredictable behaviors from our loved ones with autism. As we are sometimes (most times) the main caregiver, it is a 24/7 job. Lacking sleep and nutrients probably also contributes to a feeling of anxiety.

  • karen Sutherland

    Pity the fathers didn’t take part.

  • Meg

    Isn’t 50 kind of a small sample size?

  • Kerry

    Are they sure the mothers didn’t havea any autusm? They are only very recently learning how to diagnose it in females

  • Lacey

    I have had sensory issues my whole life. I also have anxiety issues. I am in no way autistic, but my son is. He has all of my sensory & anxiety issus as well. He also has severe ocd, which comes from my husband. We always joke & say together we equal autism… maybe we really do. This is by far one of the most facinating reads. I hope that larger studies will be done.

  • Liz

    Sorry if I’ve overlooked this somewhere, but did these mothers have sensory issues before their children were born, too? My issues got a lot worse over time, after my children were born. I showed the typical signs of Aspergers before, but was never diagnosed, as I managed to fit in somehow.
    I am not sure if an overexposure to toxic fumes in my old job or having children caused my hypersensitivities to become worse.

    • laurageggel

      Hi Liz,

      The researchers did not test the mothers for sensory issues before their children were born.

      Thanks for your question,

      News Reporter, SFARI.org

  • Angela

    Really interesting study! I have a beautiful big 13 year old boy with Autism who’s particularly sensitive to light and noise – busy shopping centres are a no-go zone if I want him to stay calm. I’m not in any way Autistic and have always needed to wear sun glasses as bright light gives me a headache and makes me irritable, and I don’t cope with noisy environments at all – if I’m trying to sleep and can hear music or tv I become really worked up. I can zone out better than my son but the sensitivity is still there.Definitely some truth to this theory. Oh and I had this sensitivity before my children as well – did worsen after but probably due to the exhaustion of raising kids!

  • Megan

    I have 2 autistic sons, and I would agree I match the findings in this study.

  • Christine

    I have a son with Asperger’s and I have many, many sensory issues including misophonia and synaesthesia. However, I do not have Autsim, and I could go into reasons why, but suffice it to say that I can read people to the point of seeming “psychic” and appear to be highly empathetic and have a an excellent use of pragmatic language. I would say that my sensory issues are serious, though, and misophonia can be excruciating at times.


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