Written by Rachel Worsley
Content note: The Reframing Autism team thought this study was important because:
However, the language used in the original research paper comes from a medical frame and does not accord with the language we use at Reframing Autism or our understanding of Autism.
Authors: E. R. Palser, A. Fotopoulou, E. Pellicano, J. M. Kilner
Affiliations: Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology, Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London; Department of Clinical and Movement Neurosciences, UCL Institute of Neurology, University College London; Centre for Research into Autism and Education, UCL Institute of Education, University College London; Department of Educational Studies, Macquarie University
Journal: Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders
In this research, published in 2019, researchers set out to discover how Autism affects interoception. Interoception is defined as the sense that allows us to examine and understand what is happening in the body, such as whether you are hungry or thirsty, or to detect body sensations such as a racing heart.
The researchers enrolled 49 Autistic children in the study and asked them to complete two tasks. One was a heartbeat tracking task in which participants counted their heartbeats in their head. Another was a heartbeat discrimination task in which participants had to hear ten beeps and were asked if the beeps were in sync with their heartbeats or out of sync with their heartbeats. They also completed a confidence score out of five after each event, from “I don’t know” to “I’m sure” about how they felt about completing the task. The children were also assessed using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, to better understand their Autistic profiles.
Previous research has suggested that altered interoception is more likely to be seen in the Autistic population, compared with the general population, and that differences could be related to anxiety. However, it is still unknown as to how interoceptive processing relates to Autistic thinking and processing, and socialising and communicating.
The boys in the study generally had more pronounced or externalised Autistic traits, compared with the girls. Generally, a more externalised Autistic presentation correlated with more accurate interoception. Those children who demonstrated a more “classic” Autistic profile reported high confidence in completing the heartbeat discrimination task, but low confidence on the heartbeat tracking task. Those who demonstrated more significant differences within the Autistic social-affective domain were more confident on completing the heartbeat discrimination task. Those children who engaged in repetitive movements often performed well for interoceptive accuracy on the heartbeat discrimination task.
The researchers found that repetitive, stimming behaviours, such as hand flapping and body rocking, are self-soothing and help to regulate the autonomic nervous system, which in turn generates interoceptive signals. The focused attention from such stimming behaviours helps the children to focus on counting heartbeats accurately.
The study found that for Autistic people, their Autism affects how confident they feel about their ability to detect interoceptive signals from their body. Although this study focussed specifically on heartbeat, the findings have implications about how confident Autistic people can be detecting any interoceptive signals, including signs of physical discomfort (e.g., hunger) or signs of emotional discomfort (e.g., racing heart).
The study found that different Autistic profiles and presentations correlate and affect different domains of interoceptive processing, as shown by the differences in confidence for the Autistic participants for the heartbeat discrimination and heartbeat tracking tasks. The researchers suggest interventions to help improve interoceptive insight need to be tailored to accommodate for individual interoceptive profiles.
Find the original study here.
The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Birpai, Awabakal, Wattamattagal, Whadjak, Amangu, Bunurong and Kaurna Yarta peoples.
We are committed to honouring the rich culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this Country, and the diversity and learning opportunities with which they provide us. We extend our gratitude and respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to all Elders past, present, and emerging, for their wisdom, their resilience, and for helping this Country to heal.