Colorado State University study helps with diagnosing autism, Asperger syndrome, attention deficit hyperactive disorder and other disorders

Colorado State University researchers are looking for neurological clues to the cause of sensory processing deficits, perhaps giving hope to parents worrying about their children’s diagnosis of autism, Asperger syndrome, attention deficit hyperactive disorder or other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Through the use of electroencephalograms, one research project at Colorado State is looking at the underlying neural mechanisms of sensory processing deficits commonly displayed by children with neurodevelopmental disorders. EEGs measure and record electrical activity of the brain and provide results that could potentially impact the diagnosis and treatment of children with autism, Asperger and ADHD.

The recently completed study gives new tools to occupational therapists who have based treatments for almost 30 years on the assumption that the children with sensory disorders process stimulation differently, while no research has been conducted to measure the responses of children with these differences. This study collected sensory processing information using EEG in typical children without ADHD or other sensory processing disorders and compare them to children who have those disorders to see if there are differences in their brain processes.  The study is the first to offer occupational therapists a way to diagnose children with sensory processing disorders by measuring the brain’s response to sensory stimulations.

"Having a more specific idea of the underlying neurophysiological mechanisms in individual children, regardless of their diagnosis, may help therapists better direct the intervention that will help both the child and the family," said Patti Davies, associate professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy and the leader of the research project.

"Therapists now choose treatment strategies primarily based on the child’s behavior, but knowing the brain function in these different areas through EEG research may give therapists a basis for treatment so they can get to the root of the problem sooner."

Davies and project research partner William Gavin hope to establish reliable and objective measures of a child brain’s ability and inability to process sensory information. If children and adults with sensory processing deficits could be identified, therapists could tailor treatments to help them cope with a world that can be overwhelming.

The study found that children with sensory processing disorder do indeed respond differently to stimulation. Children without the disorder become accustomed to frequent brain stimulation, such as a clicking sound, as evidenced by measures responses on an EEG in Davies’ laboratory. After the first click, the brain’s response is diminished to a second click. The EEGs of children with the disorder did not show the same acclimation to the stimulus. Their brain responses were somewhat disorganized when lined up with the timing of the clicks, and showed marked and at times increasing response to the stimulation continuing after the first click.

"The purpose is to collect sensory process information using EEG in typical children without ADHD, Asperger or sensory processing disorders and compare them to children with those disorders to see if we can see differences in their brain processes," Davies said.

"Sensory process disorders can be one of the symptoms of either autism or ADHD," Gavin said. "We also are collecting some behavioral measurements so that we can relate performance to actual brain physiology."

Findings of the research may be applicable in a number of areas.

"Brain injury or brain dysfunction is a common theme of research conducted by some faculty in our department," Davies says. "In the case of our research, the cause of brain dysfunction is thought to occur prenatally, as in autism.

"One of the difficulties in our profession is that, when a child is referred to us, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish the primary deficits. Assessments are often based on parent reports, so actually measuring the brain processing is a lot more objective. It would be helpful for us to be able to more specifically distinguish between children who have high functioning autism and ADHD."

Beyond diagnosis, research can help with treatment choices, Davies says.

"Insurance companies may be more likely to pay for certain treatments if there is research evidence to support the treatment. And if therapists are able to get to the root of the problem quicker, treatment length may be shortened with better outcomes for the child and family. Research has the potential to help resolve some of these issues," she said.