What comes first? Sensory Sensitivity, Anxiety, or Fear of the Unknown

A just published UK study has found that sensory sensitivities and anxiety in kids on the autism spectrum is largely driven by a fear of the unknown. Supporting our spectrum kids to learn coping strategies for uncertainty could have great benefits in reducing anxiety and sensory sensitivities.

The University College London study tested the relationships between anxiety, sensory sensitivity and intolerance of uncertainty in 64 children with autism and 85 typically developing children aged 6-14 years, all with at least average intelligence.

They found that 84% of children with autism have high levels of anxiety, while 70% have sensory sensitivities. Children with more severe degrees of sensory sensitivity had higher levels of anxiety and intolerance of uncertainty. The researchers believe that discomfort with uncertainty triggers anxiety, which makes sensory experiences seem threatening. According to lead researcher Elizabeth Pellicano from UCL, “autistic children want to have control over their environment to make it more predictable.”

Pellicano’s study provides more evidence to support the theory that unpredictability worsens both anxiety and sensory sensitivities. A 2014 study by Pawan Sinha from MIT theorised that children with autism overlook important clues and are often taken by surprise when a situation unfolds. Thus they view the world as unpredictable and overwhelming.

Helping children analyse past experiences to better predict the future may alleviate their distress, more so than trying to modify their environment, or limiting their exposure to stressful situations.

My take home message - help your child practise predicting future events using past experiences, either theirs or your own. Make a game of predicting possible outcomes for upcoming situations. 'What do you think will happen next, given what happened last time we went to ...?' Praise their logic when they come up with suggestions. Place bets if you have to!  Have fun with it.

Click on the links below if you'd like to know more about these studies.

I'd love to know how you go with this. Leave a comment below.


1.     Neil L. et al. J. Autism Dev. Disord. (2016) Epub ahead of print. PubMed

2.     Sinha P. et al. PNAS 111, 15220–15225 (2014) PubMed