THE SENSORY EXPERIENCES PROJECT (SEP) is funded by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (#42168) to examine the development, functional impact, and cause of various sensory features in children with autism, developmental delay, and/or typical development, ages 2-12 years.

Sensory experiences involve myriad sounds, lights, motions, smells, tastes and/or touch sensations that we all encounter in our daily lives. Our project studies several types of behavioral response patterns that are evident in young children in both typical and atypical development.

Among these patterns are hyper- and hypo-responsiveness as well as sensory seeking behaviors. Hyporesponsiveness is a diminished response to a sensory event. For example, a child may fail to turn toward her head to the sound of a bell, or show a delayed reaction to pain. Hyperresponsiveness presents as aversion or avoidance to a sensory event. For example, a child may cover his ears to a sound, or pull away when touched. Sensory seeking is an intense fascination or craving for a particular sensory experience. For example, a child may spin in circles or rub textures repeatedly.

Project GOALS
  1. Determine developmental changes of sensory experiences from preschool to school age in children with autism, developmental delay, and typical development.
  2. Measure the functional impact of specific sensory experiences on children's development and activities and on family routines and well-being.
  3. Identify developmental, contextual, and neurocognitive risk factors associated with specific sensory patterns in children.


Six interrelated studies will address the project goals.

Study 1, Prospective Developmental Study, examines the stability of sensory features from the preschool (2-6 years) to the school-age (6-12 years) period, and the functional impact of these features on child/family outcomes.

Study 2, Developmental Study of Infants, analyzes videos of the infancy period (9-18 months) to determine what specific infant behaviors are precursors of established sensory response patterns in the preschool/school-age years, and to what extent they predict other developmental and functional outcomes.

Study 3, Observational and Experiential Study, uses a combination of lab measures, personal accounts of parents and verbal children, and in-home behavioral observations to determine the environmental contexts that elicit specific sensory experiences and their impact on children and family functioning in daily life.

Study 4, Neurocognitive Mechanisms, uses electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain activity while a child watches a video and listens to gentle novel sounds to help determine potential causes of unusual sensory response patterns. For more information, view the EEG Demonstration Video.

Study 5, Sensory Experiences Project - Survey of Children’s Sensory Experiences, aims to determine various sensory subtypes in children with autism using a longitudinal online survey with 1,000 families across the United States.  The study will also extend the original aims of the Sensory Experiences Project to determine how sensory features may change across time, and how these features may impact children's functional skills and social participation.  Recruitment for this study is closed.

This study was made possible when Dr. Grace Baranek and the SEP team were awarded a new two-year supplement grant through NICHD as part of the federal ARRA stimulus package in October 2009.  The new funding has added several new positions to the team, including a post-doctoral associate, Dr. Karla Ausderau, who is a recent graduate of USC's Occupational Science doctoral program and Melissa Furlong, a recent graduate of Duke University's Masters's in Public Policy Administration, focusing on health outcomes.

Click here to see the Poster Presentation from Study 5 at the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) in 2011.

Study 6
, Eye Tracking Study of Children's Visual Attention, examines children's ability to look at and shift attention while watching pictures and videos on the computer and explores the relationship between their attention and sensory responses.  We are enrolling 20 children with autism, 20 children with developmental delay and 20 children with typical development, ages 2-12 years.  More information located here.


SEP was renewed in July of 2008. Some participants from our first phase will be returning to work with us in the second phase. In addition we are looking for new participants, ages 2-12 years with autism, developmental delay, and typical development, to take part in our exciting new studies. We are currently working on a renewal submission to continue our current research (If you are interested in participating in any of these studies, click here to contact us)