Action-based touch observation in adults with high functioning autism: Can compromised self-other distinction abilities link social and sensory everyday problems?

Next to social problems, individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often report severe sensory difficulties. Altered processing of touch is however a stronger mediator of social symptoms’ severity than altered processing of for instance vision or audition. Why is this the case? We reasoned that sensory difficulties may be linked to social problems in ASD through insufficient self-other distinction centred on touch.

We investigated by means of EEG whether the brain of adults with ASD adequately signals when a tactile consequence of an observed action does not match own touch, as compared to the brain of matched controls. We employed the action-based somatosensory congruency paradigm (Deschrijver et al., 2015):

Participants observed a human or wooden hand touching a surface, combined with a tap-like tactile sensation that either matched or mismatched the tactile consequence of the observed movement.

The ASD group showed a diminished congruency effect for human hands only in the P3-complex, suggesting difficulties with signalling observed action-based touch of others that does not match own touch experiences. Crucially, this effect reliably correlated with self- reported social and sensory everyday difficulties in ASD.