Temperament and Sensory Features of Children with Autism and Developmental Delays

Research Brief

Temperament and Sensory Features of Children with Autism

Previous studies have found that the temperament profiles for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as a group, differ from that of typically developing (TD) children.

This study had two aims.

First, to look at whether or not the results of this study would match those of previous studies that found differences between children with ASD and TD on measures of temperament, and then to expand these findings by specifically testing differences between children with ASD and children with developmental delay (DD).

The researchers also wanted to characterize temperament traits in a sample of children with ASD, ages 3-7 years old, and to determine the potential association between temperament and the sensory features in ASD.

Nine dimensions of temperament from the Behavioral Style Questionnaire (BSQ) were compared among groups of children with ASD, DD children, and the original normative sample of typically developing children who were given the assessment by the developers of the BSQ instrument.

The researchers hypothesized that compared to the TD group, the ASD group would be temperamentally more active, more withdrawn, less adaptive, less intense in their reactions, and less sensitive to environmental stimuli. They expected that the ASD group would also be more temperamentally withdrawn (on the approach dimension) than the DD group.

All of these hypotheses were confirmed, and in addition, the ASD group was distinct from the TD group on other temperament dimensions. These included lower rhythmicity and lower distractibility. As predicted, the ASD group had subscales scores on the temperament questionnaire that were significantly different from TD children and more similar to children with DD. Only the mood subscale did not display significant differences between the ASD group and the TD group. The ASD group differed significantly from the DD group on approach, showing more withdrawal, and on distractibility, showing less distractibility.

The second aim was to test the associations between three constructs of sensory responsiveness and nine dimensions of temperament for children with ASD.

The researchers hypothesized that low scores on the threshold of responsiveness dimension would be associated with measures of sensory hyporesponsiveness (a lack of response or a diminished response to a sensory stimulus, like not responding to one’s name or a diminished response to pain), and that high scores on the threshold of responsiveness dimension with be associated with measures of sensory hyperresponsiveness (an exaggerated response to a sensory stimulus, like an intense dislike of noise or an avoidance of touch).

Looking at this second aim, testing the association between three constructs of sensory responsiveness and the dimensions of temperament, the researchers found that hyporesponsiveness was most associated with distractibility. A slower, or more cautious approach, was also associated with increased sensory features across all three sensory constructs including sensory seeking. Hyporesponsiveness was associated with adaptability in the predicted direction (slowness to adapt). Mood was significantly correlated with all three sensory response patterns, suggesting that high levels of sensory features, regardless of the nature of these features, are associated with increased withdrawal and more negative mood. However, contrary to expectations, they did not find statistically significant associations between some other dimensions of temperament (activity, rhythmicity, intensity) and patterns of sensory responsiveness.

These findings indicate that children with ASD as a group can be distinguished on the basis of two temperament characteristics (lower distractibility and slower approach) from children with DD as well as TD children. Identification of associations between sensory response patterns, temperament traits, and core features of ASD may also have implications for intervention.

This Research Brief is based on the article: Brock, M.E., Freuler, A., Baranek, G.T., Watson, L.R., Poe, M.D., & Sabatino, A. (2012). Temperament and sensory features of children withautism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 42(11), 2271-2284.

This research was supported by a grant from NICHD (R01 HD42168). We thank the families whose participation made this study possible. For more information about The Sensory Experiences Project please visit our website: http://www.med.unc.edu/sep


University of

North Carolina at Chapel Hill