Scientists from Israel found evidence contradicting the long-standing belief that autistic people are more indifferent to pain than those without autism.
Although not proven, many people assume that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have more pain tolerance and are less likely to feel pain than non-autistic individuals. However, older reports suggest that some autistic people are insensitive to pain while others are more vulnerable to it. Still, perceived insensitivity to pain may be more related to the difficulty some autistic people have with communicating their pain to others.
In addition, many autistic individuals also have some degree of sensory modulation dysfunction. For people with this condition, hearing, vision, and touch may be hyper or hypo-sensitive. As a result, an autistic person with sensory modulation dysfunction may engage in self-injurious or aggressive behaviors in response to stimuli.
Because sensory modulation dysfunction occurs in about 70 to 90% of autistic people, researchers from Israel decided to look deeper into pain perception in autism. Specifically, the team wanted to determine if autistic people feel pain with more intensity than those without ASD.
Their research, published in the journal Pain, found that autistic people experience pain at a greater intensity and are less adaptable to pain than non-autistic individuals.
The team included 52 adults diagnosed with high-functioning or level 1 autism and 52 non-autistic participants in the investigation. The participants underwent sensory testing to assess the links between pain stimulus and response. They also reported any anxiety, pain catastrophizing, sensory issues, and pain sensitivity they experienced.
The autistic participants reported significantly higher pain scores than those without ASD. In addition, greater ASD severity and sensory hypersensitivity to everyday stimuli were associated with hypersensitivity to pain.
In a news release, Dr. Tami Bar-Shalita of the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University said:
"The results of our study indicate that in most cases, the sensitivity to pain of people with autism is actually higher than that of most of the population, while at the same time they are unsuccessful at effectively suppressing painful stimuli."
The research team hopes their study findings will raise awareness of the pain sensitivity in autistic individuals — leading to more appropriate care and treatment by healthcare professionals.
- Spectrum. Unseen agony: Dismantling autism's house of pain.
- University of Hertfordshire. Sensory Modulation Difficulties in Autism Spectrum Disorders: A brief primer.
- Pain. Indifference or hypersensitivity? Solving the riddle of the pain profile in individuals with autism.
- Neuroscience News. People With Autism Experience Pain at a Higher Intensity.