Impaired responses to tactile stimulation are a commonly reported symptom among children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Furthermore, impairments in filtering or habituation to tactile input have been described in ASD. This study measured different aspects of tactile processing to investigate atypical touch sensitivity in children with ASD, methodology that has not been previously used in this population. Sixty-seven typically developing children (TDC) and 32 children with ASD (ages 8-12) completed vibrotactile tasks assessing: reaction time (RT); static and dynamic detection threshold (DT); amplitude discrimination with and without single-site adaptation; frequency discrimination; and temporal order judgment (TOJ) with and without concurrent stimulation. Children with ASD showed raised static detection thresholds and an absence of the effect of a dynamically increasing subthreshold stimulus on static detection threshold. Children with ASD also showed poorer amplitude discrimination than TDC, as well as decreased adaptation. There were no significant differences in frequency discrimination or TOJ performance between the groups. Differences in the effect of dynamic stimulation on detection threshold suggest impaired feed-forward inhibition in autism, which may be linked to poor sensory filtering. Increased baseline amplitude discrimination thresholds in ASD suggest that lateral inhibitory connections are weaker in ASD, and an absence of the effect of adaptation suggests impaired modulation of lateral inhibitory connections in ASD, which may relate to aberrant habituation. These results suggest a functional deficit in the somatosensory inhibitory system in autism. Understanding the specific mechanisms underlying sensory symptoms in autism may allow for more specific therapeutic or drug targeting in the near future.
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