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Relationship Between Context and Sensory Processing

in Children With Autism

Natalie Bennett Brown, Winnie Dunn

KEY WORDS OBJECTIVE. The purpose of the study was to determine the relationship between sensory processing and
! autistic disorder context for children with autism. We examined home and school contexts using the Sensory Profile (Dunn,
1999) and the Sensory Profile School Companion (Dunn, 2006a) questionnaires.
! child behavior
! environment
METHOD. Teachers of 49 students with autism completed the Sensory Profile School Companion, and parents
completed the Sensory Profile. We conducted correlational analyses using the avoiding and seeking quadrant
! sensory processing
scores from the School Companion and corresponding avoiding and seeking quadrant scores from the Sensory
! sensory threshold Profile.
RESULTS. The avoiding quadrant score coefficient (.59) and the seeking quadrant score coefficient (.45)
were statistically significant (p 5 .01) with good and fair correlations, respectively, suggesting that sensory
processing patterns have both universal qualities and context-specific qualities in children with autism.
CONCLUSION. Findings from this study provide initial evidence that sensory processing and context for
children with autism are related.

Brown, N. B., & Dunn, W. (2010). Relationship between context and sensory processing in children with autism. American
Journal of Occupational Therapy, 64, 474483. doi: 10.5014/ajot.2010.09077

I
Natalie Bennett Brown, MS, OTR/L, is Occupational n the United States, the prevalence of autism is 1 in 150 births, and it affects
Therapist, The Manse, 9 Hamilton Gardens, London NW8
more boys than girls (4.8:1; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
9PU England; tallybennett@yahoo.com. At the time of the
study, she was a graduate student at the University [CDC], 2007). Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by im-
of Kansas. pairments in social skills and nonverbal and verbal communication, and it
involves repetitive behaviors and unusual interests (American Psychiatric As-
Winnie Dunn, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, is Professor and
sociation, 2000; Corsello, 2005; Rapin, 1991). In addition to those core char-
Chair, Department of Occupational Therapy Education,
University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City. acteristics, many children with autism have unusual ways of learning, attending,
and responding to sensory experiences (Rapin, 1991; Strock, 2004); this area
of consideration has received greater attention in the past decade.

Sensory Processing Concepts


Scholars have continued to advance the study of sensory processing since Sensory
Integration Theory was first developed by Jean Ayres. Dunns (1997) Model of
Sensory Processing is based in knowledge from neuroscience and behavioral
science (Figure 1). The model conceptualizes sensory processings contribution
to a childs behavior. Dunns model hypothesizes that an interaction between
neurological thresholds and behavioral responses exists (Dunn, 1997). In Figure 1,
neurological thresholds (i.e., the vertical axis) indicate the amount of stimuli
needed for a child to notice or react to the stimuli. The behavioral responses (i.e.,
the horizontal axis) indicate the manner in which a child responds to stimuli.
According to Dunns Model of Sensory Processing, neurological thresholds
and behavioral responses fall on a continuum and interact with each other. The
intersection of the two continua results in four sensory processing patterns (i.e.,
registration, seeking, sensitivity, and avoiding) that offer possible interpretations
of a childs behavior (Dunn, 2006a):

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Moreover, research has shown that sensory processing
affects a childs ability to learn (Ayres, 1979; Dunn, 2001;
Dunn & Donaldson, 2001). Specifically, children with
autism often fail to notice sensory input that is impor-
tant; at other times, they are overly sensitive to sensory
input and withdraw from stimuli (Ermer & Dunn,
1998; Kientz & Dunn, 1997; Ornitz, 1974; Rapin,
1991; Tomchek & Dunn, 2007; Watling, Deitz, &
White, 2001). This pattern of responding makes it dif-
ficult for a child to learn because he or she misses im-
portant information needed to profit from instruction;
this situation becomes critical in the school context. For
Figure 1. Dunns Model of Sensory Processing.
these reasons, education teams need the appropriate tools
From The Impact of Sensory Processing Abilities on the Daily Lives of Young to identify and design effective interventions specific to
Children and Families: A Conceptual Model, by W. Dunn, 1997, Infants and the educational context.
Young Children, 9(4), p. 24. Copyright ! 1997 by Aspen Publishers. Reprinted
with permission.
Evaluation Within the Educational System
With a cause for autism not yet understood, effective
Registration is described as the degree to which a child interventions for children with this disorder are in de-
misses sensory input (high neurological threshold and mand. Because of federal laws and the fact that children
passive response). spend most of their day at school, the educational system is
Seeking is the degree to which a child obtains sensory expected to provide much of the instruction and in-
input. Children in the seeking quadrant also have tervention for children with autism (Individuals With
a high neurological threshold but respond actively. Disabilities Education Act of 1990; Individuals With
Children with low neurological thresholds fall into Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004; No
the sensitivity or avoiding quadrants. Child Left Behind Act of 2001). Public schools are re-
Sensitivity is the degree to which a child notices sen- quired to provide supportive programming to facilitate
sory input (passive response). childrens success in academics and social interactions.
Avoiding is the degree to which a child is bothered by Including assessment of sensory processing in the edu-
sensory input (active response). cational assessment plans of children who have autism
The interaction of neurological thresholds and behavioral may facilitate individualized intervention planning.
responses provides a method for explaining how children A critical factor that the educational system faces
process sensory information and guidance for intervention when serving children with autism, however, involves
planning (Dunn, 1999). conducting valid and reliable assessments. Assessments are
used to determine childrens learning strengths and needs.
Sensory Processing and Children Many authors have suggested that childrens reaction
With Autism to sensation may interfere with both assessment and
educational planning (Ayres, 1979; Case-Smith & Bryan,
One of the many difficulties children with autism face
1999; Case-Smith & Miller, 1999; Cook, 1991; Kientz &
is that they respond to sensory experiences in an unusual
Dunn, 1997; Larson, 1982). If we are better able to
way (CDC, 2007; Rapin, 1991; Strock, 2004). Children
understand childrens reaction to sensation, particu-
with autism may be sensitive and overreact to auditory
larly their sensory processing patterns, then professionals
stimulation and withdraw (Case-Smith & Bryan, 1999).
will have important information to guide educational
They may also seek proprioceptive and vestibular input
planning.
through self-stimulatory, repetitive behaviors such as
rocking, spinning, or flapping their hands (Case-Smith &
Bryan, 1999). The unique sensory processing patterns of
Methods for Assessing
children with autism are associated with dysfunction in Sensory Processing
attending, arousal, interactions with others, and goal- Behavior is influenced by context; therefore, it is im-
directed play (Case-Smith & Bryan, 1999; Greenspan & portant to consider a persons context when consid-
Wieder, 1997; Wieder, 1996). ering his or her potential to learn (Dunn, Brown, &

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McGuigan, 1994). The Sensory Profile (Dunn, 1999), teacher and parent responses to the same questionnaire also
which is based on Dunns Model of Sensory Processing, suggest that home and school variables differ and indicate
has been used in many interdisciplinary studies to doc- the need for contextually designed assessments and dif-
ument sensory processing patterns in children and ferent interventions and goals (Achenbach et al., 1987).
adults with and without disabilities (Brown, Tollefson, Questions may be raised about how home and school
Dunn, Cromwell, & Filion, 2001; Dunn, 1994; Dunn & versions of sensory processing assessments relate to each
Bennett, 2002; Ermer & Dunn, 1998; Kientz & Dunn, other. If assessment of sensory processing only concerns
1997; Rogers, Hepburn, & Wehner, 2003; Watling childrens reactions, then home and school assessments
et al., 2001). However, behaviors assessed by the Sensory will be highly correlated. If, however, the contexts of
Profile are not specific to behaviors that would occur in childrens reactions are an important factor, then both
the classroom setting, where a school-age child spends similarities and differences will perhaps indicate the
most of his or her day. contribution of context to behavior. For this study, we
Home and school contexts are unique, and contex- hypothesized that the greatest difference between parent
tually relevant assessments are therefore essential. Re- and teacher responses would be seen in the two active
cently, the Sensory Profile School Companion (hereinafter behavioral response quadrants from Dunns Model of
referred to as the School Companion) has been published Sensory Processing (i.e., avoiding and seeking). Perhaps
to answer this need (Dunn, 2006a). The School Com- the active behavioral response quadrant behaviors would
panion is built on Dunns Model of Sensory Processing be more noticeable, making it easier for parents and
(Figure 1) and coordinates findings with the well- teachers to report behaviors.
established Sensory Profile (Dunn, 1999). The School In summary, a strong need for effective assessment
Companion reflects scores that are grounded in tested and intervention for children with autism exists. The
theoretical concepts from the literature (i.e., sensory school system is expected to provide specialized instruction
processing patterns: seeking, avoiding, sensitivity, and to meet the unique learning needs of all children. Research
registration), providing insights into the childs sensory has shown that children with autism have unique sensory
patterns in the context of school. The School Companion processing patterns affecting the way in which they re-
also offers sensory system scores (i.e., visual, auditory, spond in their everyday lives, including at home and at
touch, movement) and a behavior score. Because teachers school (Ermer & Dunn, 1998; Kientz & Dunn, 1997;
complete this form, it also includes four school factor Ornitz, 1974; Rapin, 1991; Tomchek & Dunn, 2007;
scores reflecting teacher and classroom perspectives. Watling et al., 2001). Being able to determine how
The School Companion is designed for children ages specific sensory processing patterns might relate to par-
311. The childs teacher uses a 5-point Likert scale to ticipation at home and at school will help professionals
complete the 62-item questionnaire regarding the childs support children, families, and teachers by demonstrating
responses to daily sensory experiences in the classroom. how therapists might adjust the context to better fit
Additionally, the School Companion is designed to be childrens needs.
used in conjunction with the Sensory Profile (Dunn, The purpose of this study was to determine the re-
1999), which solicits the caregivers input, providing lationship between sensory processing and context. To
a comprehensive view of the childs sensory processing address this purpose, we examined Sensory Profile and
patterns. We used the Sensory Profile and School Com- School Companion findings for the same children, hy-
panion in this study of home and school contexts because pothesizing that each assessment would provide contex-
of their common conceptual basis. tually specific information about the sensory processing
responses of children with autism at home (Sensory
Profile) and at school (School Companion). If context
Identifying the Best Source for (home and school) and sensory processing patterns are
Evaluation Information related, then some aspects of sensory processing responses
Research has shown that when teachers and parents are in children with autism will be unique to school. We
asked the same questions about a child, the responses are hypothesized (1) a low relationship between seeking
only slightly correlated, suggesting that each informant has quadrant scores at home and at school and (2) a high
a unique view and that one view cannot be substituted for relationship between avoiding quadrant scores at home
the other (Achenbach, McConaughy, & Howell, 1987; and at school. For this study, we focused only on the
De Los Reyes & Kazdin, 2005; de Nijs et al., 2004; seeking and avoiding quadrants. We hypothesized that the
Kumpulainen et al., 1999). The low correlations between active quadrant behaviors from Dunns Model of Sensory

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Processing (i.e., avoiding and seeking) would be more input, sensitivity is the level at which a child notices
noticeable, making it easier for parents and teachers to sensory input, and avoiding is the level at which a child is
report them, and that these two quadrants would have the bothered by sensory input. Parents respond to each
greatest difference in parent and teacher responses. statement by reporting the frequency with which their
child engages in a behavior on a 5-point Likert scale (i.e.,
Method 1 5 always, 100% of the time; 2 5 frequently, 75% of the
time; 3 5 occasionally, 50% of the time; 4 5 seldom, 25%
Research Design
of the time; and 5 5 never, 0% of the time). The Caregiver
We conducted correlational analyses to explore the re- Questionnaire and the Summary Score Sheet require
lationship between sensory processing and context for approximately 30 min to complete. We calculated the
children ages 311 yr. The avoiding and seeking quadrant Supplement Summary Score Sheet in SPSS 16 (SPSS,
scores from the School Companion (school) were corre- Inc., Chicago) using the raw scores.
lated with the corresponding avoiding and seeking We estimated the Sensory Profiles reliability using
quadrant scores from the Sensory Profile (home). The internal consistency. Internal consistency indicates the ex-
teachers of 49 students with autism completed the School tent to which the items in each section measure a single
Companion, and parents completed the Sensory Profile. construct. The value of Cronbachs a for each of the
Participants in this study were part of a larger study various sections ranged from .47 to .91 (Dunn, 1999).
conducted from September 2005 to March 2006 to es- Validity refers to the extent to which a test measures
tablish validity and reliability for the School Companion. what it is designed to measure. Dunn (1999) compared
This parent study was approved by the institutional review scores from the Sensory Profile with scores obtained on
board of the University of Kansas Medical Center, and the School Function Assessment (Miller-Kuhaneck,
participating parents and teachers provided informed Henry, Glennon, & Mu, K. (2007). Both high and low
consent. correlations were found, providing evidence of conver-
gent and discriminant validity. Convergent and dis-
Participant Selection
criminant validity are types of construct validity, which is
The sample for this study included 56 students with the ability of an instrument to measure an abstract con-
autism (49 boys and 7 girls) located across the United cept or construct (Portney & Watkins, 2000).
States and their public school teachers (n 5 56); teachers Convergent validity indicates that two assessments are
completed the School Companion on participating stu- believed to reflect the same concept (high correlation).
dents. To participate, students were required to have Conversely, discriminant validity indicates that two as-
a diagnosis of autism as designated by the educational sessments assess different characteristics (low correlation).
system. Children with multiple diagnoses were excluded For example, correlations were higher between the behav-
from the data set. As a result of missing data, 49 pairs of ioral regulation section of the School Function Assessment
teachers and children with autism had complete data sets and the modulation sections of the School Companion.
for the analyses in this study. Lower correlations were found between the more detailed
performance items on the School Factor Assessment (e.g.,
Instruments manipulating small objects in art class) and items on the
The Sensory Profile (Dunn, 1999) is a caregiver ques- Sensory Profile (Dunn, 1999).
tionnaire consisting of 125 items that describe a childs Other researchers have provided additional validity
response to sensory experiences. The items are divided data for the Sensory Profile. For example, researchers have
into three main sections: (1) sensory processing, (2) mod- shown that children with autism have significantly dif-
ulation, and (3) behavioral and emotional responses. The ferent sensory processing patterns from those of their peers
questionnaire items also form nine meaningful groups, or (Kientz & Dunn, 1997; Tomchek & Dunn, 2007;
factors, that characterize children by their responsiveness Watling et al., 2001), children with Asperger syndrome
to sensory input. The Supplement Summary Score Sheet (Myles, Hagiwara, Dunn, Rinner, & Reece, 2004), and
to the Sensory Profile (Dunn, 2006b) provides four children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Er-
quadrant scores (registration, seeking, sensitivity, and mer & Dunn, 1998). In addition, Rogers et al. (2003)
avoiding) that correspond to Dunns (1997) Model of reported sensory processing differences among children
Sensory Processing (Figure 1). According to the model, with autism, fragile X syndrome, and developmental delays
registration is the level at which a child misses sensory and children without disabilities, suggesting that the short
input, seeking is the level at which a child obtains sensory Sensory Profile can discriminate among these groups.

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The School Companion (Dunn, 2006a) is a 62-item warded them to us. We calculated summary scores using
teacher questionnaire; items describe a students response raw scores and conducted statistical analyses using SPSS 16.
to common sensory experiences in the school context.
Because the School Companion is designed to be used in Data Analysis
conjunction with the Sensory Profile, the School Com- To determine the relationship between home and school
panion uses the same 5-point Likert scale and scoring reports of sensory processing patterns in children with
procedures as the Sensory Profile. The Teacher Ques- autism, we conducted correlational analyses using the
tionnaire provides the same four quadrant scores (regis- avoiding and seeking quadrant scores from the School
tration, seeking, sensitivity, and avoiding) corresponding Companion and the corresponding avoiding and seeking
to Dunns Model of Sensory Processing, four school quadrant scores from the Sensory Profile. We hypothe-
factor scores (School Factors 1, 2, 3, and 4), and section sized that the schools context may restrict seeking pat-
scores for four sensory groups and one behavior group terns that are demonstrated at home, whereas behaviors
(auditory, visual, movement, touch, and behavior). associated with avoiding patterns may be more likely to
Teachers required approximately 15 min to complete the occur in both the home and the school contexts. We
Teacher Questionnaire, and we calculated the scoring conducted one-tailed Spearman rank order correlations
summary using the raw scores within SPSS 16. with a bivariate correlation design. We chose Spearman
Dunn (2006a) used Cronbachs a coefficient to re- rank order correlations because data from a Likert scale
port reliability of the School Companion. Correlations are nonparametric. We set the p value at the standard
ranged from .83 to .95, which are considered to be in the level of .05. We used SPSS 16 to complete the cor-
adequate reliability range (DePoy & Gitlin, 1994). Dunn relational analyses and frequency distributions of the
also reported testretest reliability coefficients ranging demographics.
from .80 to .95, reflecting good to excellent stability of
scores from the teachers first rating on a child to the
teachers second rating on the same child (Dunn, 2006a). Results
To test the validity of the School Companion, we The 49 students (43 boys and 6 girls) ranged in age from
correlated the scores from the teacher responses on the 3 yr 3 mo to 11 yr 11 mo (Table 1). Five of the children
School Companion with scores from the parent responses received one service (i.e., occupational therapy, physical
on the Sensory Profile and indicated contrasting high and therapy, speechlanguage therapy, special education, or
low correlations, providing evidence of convergent and counseling), 10 children received two services, and 34
discriminant validity. For example, the parent and teacher students received more than two services (Table 2).
ratings for the avoiding quadrant score had the highest Of the children, approximately 18% were from various
correlation (.62), and the parent and teacher ratings for ethnic backgrounds (4 African-American, 2 Asian, 1
the seeking quadrant score had the weakest correlation (.34). Hispanic, 2 othermultiracial), and approximately 82%
In addition, teachers completed a demographic data were White (n 5 40).
sheet that included educational level and degree attained, Teachers experience ranged from 0 to 26 yr, and
frequency of teacher contact with students, years of teacher educational levels ranged from no degree to a doctoral
contact with students, and years of teaching experience. degree (no degree 5 1, bachelors degree 5 22, masters
Teachers also reported parents educational level. degree 5 23, doctoral degree 5 2, missing 5 1; see Table
3). Seven teachers had contact with students 2 days
Procedures a week, 17 teachers had contact with students 34 days
To prevent conflict of interest, an independent testing a week, and 25 teachers had contact with students daily
company sent packets to teachers and parents of children (Table 4). Most teachers had only 1 year of contact with
with autism. The packets included a cover letter with
instructions, a demographic data sheet, a consent form, Table 1. Distribution of Children With Autism by Age and Gender
and the Sensory Profile and School Companion Male (n 5 43) Female (n 5 6)
questionnaires. Teachers completed the demographic Age (yr.mo) n % of Sample n % of Sample
data sheet, consent form, and the School Companion, 3.05.11 20 40.82 2 4.08
and parents completed the Sensory Profile. Participants 6.08.11 12 24.49 1 2.04
returned the material to the testing company within 2 9.011.11 11 22.45 3 6.12
months of receipt of packet materials. The testing com- Total 43 87.76 6 12.24
pany compiled the data into deidentified files and for- Note. N 5 49.

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Table 2. Distribution of Children With Autism by Race or Ethnicity Table 4. Distribution of Frequency by Teacher Contact With
and Number of Services Received Students and Years of Teacher Contact With Students
Race/Ethnicity and Services n % of Sample Teachers of Students With
Race or ethnicity Autism (N 5 49)
African-American 4 8.16 Teacher Contact With Students n % of Sample
Asian 2 4.08 Frequency of contact
Hispanic 1 2.04 2 days/week 7 14.29
White 40 81.63 34 days/week 17 34.69
Othermultiracial 2 4.08 Daily 25 51.02
Total 49 100.00 Total 49 100.0
Services received Years of contact
1 5 10.20 1 yr 30 61.22
2 10 20.41 >1 yr 19 38.78
>2 34 69.39 Total 49 100.00
Total 49 100.00
Note. N 5 49. Percentages may not total 100 because of rounding.
As a result of missing data, only 49 of the 56 pairs of
students (n 5 30), but some teachers had multiple years teachers and students with autism were eligible for the
of contact (8 had 2 yr, 4 had 3 yr, 2 had 4 yr, 5 had study. In addition, we excluded cases pairwise in the
5 yr). correlations to minimize the effect of missing data. For this
In addition, parents of the same children completed reason, the number of participants reported in Table 6
the Sensory Profile Caregiver Questionnaire. Mothers varies.
and fathers education levels (based on teacher report) When data were plotted, both the seeking and
ranged from 11 yr of school (mother 5 0, father 5 2) avoiding results had outliers (Figures 2 and 3). When
to 16 yr of school; with most parents had 16 yr outliers were excluded, the correlation strength improved.
of school (mother 5 21, father 5 21; see Table 5). The demographics, however, indicated no reason to ex-
Other education levels included 12 yr of school or clude the outliers from the results; thus, the reported
a GED (mother 5 12, father 5 10), and 1315 yr of results include data from outliers.
school (mother 5 16, father 5 15); one parent was
unreported (mother 5 0, father 5 1).
Discussion
Table 6 summarizes the results of the correlations
using the avoiding and seeking quadrant scores from the In this study, we examined the relationship between
Sensory Profile (parent report) and School Companion sensory processing patterns at home and school in children
(teacher report). The avoiding quadrants correlated at .59 with autism. Specifically, we correlated the seeking
(p 5 .01). The seeking quadrants correlation was also quadrant scores from the Sensory Profile (completed by
positive (.45, p 5 .01). parents) and the School Companion (completed by
teachers). We also correlated the avoiding quadrant scores
from each of the assessments. Data analysis revealed sta-
Table 3. Distribution of Teachers by Education Level or Degree tistically significant correlations, with both good and fair
Attainment and Years of Teaching Experience correlations suggesting that sensory processing patterns
Teacher Education and Experience n % of Sample have both universal qualities (i.e., the impact is the same
Education level or degree
No degree 1 2.04
Bachelors degree 22 44.90 Table 5. Distribution of Parents of Children With Autism by
Masters degree 23 46.94 Education Levels
Doctoral degree 2 4.09
Mother (n 5 49) Father (n 5 49)
Missing 1 2.04
Education Level n % of Sample n % of Sample
Total 49 100.00
Years of teaching 11 yr of school 0 0.00 2 4.08
010 18 36.73 12 yr of school or GED 12 24.49 10 20.41
1120 18 36.73 1315 yr of school 16 32.65 15 30.61
>20 13 26.53 16 yr of school 21 42.86 21 42.86
Total 49 100.0 Not reported 0 0.00 1 2.04
Total 49 100.00 49 100.00
Note. N 5 49. Percentages may not total 100 because of rounding.

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Table 6. Correlations Between the School Companion and teacher, who observes the child amid a classroom full of
Sensory Profile Avoiding and Seeking Quadrant Scores for students.
Children With Autism
For practitioners, these findings can be helpful in
Sensory Profile Quadrants
intervention planning. Both parents and teachers can
School Companion Quadrants Avoiding Seeking implement strategies that could minimize sensory expe-
Avoiding riences to reduce a childs need to use avoiding behaviors.
r .59** .42*
Situations in both home and school contexts may be
n 31 30
Seeking
especially overwhelming (i.e., school assemblies, fire
r .46** .45** drills, shopping at a department store with a parent, or
n 37 36 receiving a haircut). Therapists should ask additional
Note. The ns vary as a result of missing data. questions about these high-risk situations when children
pp < .05 level (one-tailed). ppp < .01 level (one-tailed). have avoiding patterns so that strategies can be created to
prevent challenging behaviors. Encouraging parents and
everywhere) and context-specific qualities (i.e., the impact teachers to discuss a students sensory preferences across
is specific to a situation or activity) in children with autism. contexts can provide additional information that will
The avoiding quadrant had a moderate to good assist in determining which situations are most over-
correlation coefficient (.59), suggesting that a childs whelming for a student and in planning more effective
reactions of being overwhelmed by sensory experiences interventions.
might sometimes be similar at home and at school. Per- The seeking quadrant correlation (.45) was in the fair
haps children with autism are universally overwhelmed range. For seeking responses, expectations and limitations
and avoid sensations across contexts. For example, both of a particular context may contribute to the fair corre-
teachers and parents may report that students with autism lation between home and school. For example, when
hold their hands over their ears to protect against sound, a child sings out loud at home, such behavior might be
avoid eye contact, or withdraw in response to changes in considered delightful. This behavior would be considered
routine. The context has the potential to provide multiple disruptive when exhibited in the classroom setting,
sensory experiences. Children with avoiding patterns can resulting in a difference in reporting by parents and
become easily overwhelmed; stimuli that trigger avoiding teachers. Some parents may observe their children in
reactions can occur anywhere and at any time. However, multiple unstructured contexts in which seeking behaviors
because the correlation between context and sensory are acceptable and encouraged. Other parents might
processing was not perfect, data suggest that the home provide greater amounts of structure that guide the childs
and school contexts also reflect sensory circumstances that responses. By contrast, teachers may be more likely to
are unique to each environment. For example, a family notice seeking behaviors during structured classroom
with one child may have a home context that is quieter activities (such as seatwork, a time when students are
than the school context. Such parents would likely ob- expected to be more controlled) and less likely to take
serve fewer auditory reactions than would the childs note of seeking behaviors during recess when all students

Figure 2. Scatterplot for seeking quadrant score. Figure 3. Scatterplot for avoiding quadrant score.

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are more active. Alternatively, a child with seeking pref- lated, suggesting that simply knowing a childs sensory
erences may maintain self-control during the school day processing patterns without considering contextual fac-
but exhibit more seeking behaviors when at home. As tors would be insufficient information for comprehensive
a result, the seeking patterns at home and school may intervention planning.
require special attention to understand the impact of
seeking on a childs ability to participate in daily life. Implications for Occupational Therapy Practice
Discussion between parents and teachers provides a more
This studys results support the need to assess sensory
comprehensive understanding of a students unique sen-
processing patterns in children with autism across con-
sory processing needs related to seeking.
texts. The School Companion may be a valuable addition
As shown in Table 6, the correlations using the
to the Sensory Profile measure in accomplishing this goal.
corresponding seeking and avoiding quadrant scores were
Because both measures are built on the same conceptual
significant. However, we also found significant correla-
foundation, therapists can examine the impact of sensory
tions between the School Companion avoiding quadrant
processing in everyday life from parents (using the Sen-
score and the Sensory Profile seeking quadrant score (.42,
sory Profile) and from teachers (using the School Com-
p 5 .05), as well as between the School Companion
panion). Having more pieces of the autism puzzle may
seeking quadrant score and the Sensory Profile avoiding
help to provide more effective and individualized inter-
quadrant score (.46, p 5 .01). Both correlations fell in
ventions. Having data to support the concept that the
the fair range. Perhaps we found significant correlations
context may be a factor in ones sensory processing pro-
across these quadrants because, according to Dunns
vides a respectful way of discussing the similarities and
Model of Sensory Processing (Figure 1), both avoiding
differences between home and school as unique settings
and seeking patterns are active self-regulation patterns.
in which children can thrive.
Self-regulation is on a continuum and is defined as the
strategy a person uses to manage his or her own needs and
preferences (Dunn 2006a). Perhaps childrens need to Limitations and Future Research
control their own sensory input, whether it be to receive This studys small sample size limits its generalizability.
more (i.e., seeking) or less (i.e., avoiding), is reflected in However, the sample included children with a distribu-
these fair correlations. tion of age, race, involvement in special education (i.e.,
The literature on multiple informants indicates that number of services, frequency of teacher contact), and
when parents and teachers are asked the same question, the parental educational levels, increasing the confidence
answers are only slightly correlated, suggesting that each that results are relevant to a larger population of children
informant has a unique view (Achenbach et al., 1987; with autism. Future studies should investigate additional
De Los Reyes & Kazdin, 2005; de Nijs et al., 2004; patterns of sensory processing. In addition, future re-
Kumpulainen et al., 1999). This literature also reiterates search using other samples of children and adolescents
the importance of receiving information from both pa- with disabilities would provide further information re-
rents and teachers during the assessment process and the garding the relationship between context and sensory
necessity of using context-specific assessments (Achen- processing.
bach et al., 1987). In addition, having both home and
school information provides an opportunity to identify
successful strategies from parents and teachers that may Conclusion
be useful in the other context. Furthermore, using con- This studys findings provide initial evidence for the ex-
text-specific assessments (home and school versions) can istence of a relationship between sensory processing and
provide a way to respectfully discuss what is happening at context for children with autism. Both similarities and
home and school without suggesting that either parents differences in childrens reactions to sensory stimuli may
or teachers are providing an inaccurate perspective. indicate the influence of context on behavior. The rela-
We know from the literature that children with autism tionships between home and school sensory processing
have unique sensory processing patterns (Ermer & Dunn, patterns found in this study suggest that therapists must
1998; Kientz & Dunn, 1997; Ornitz, 1974; Rapin, 1991; consider the context when assessing and treating the be-
Tomchek & Dunn, 2007; Watling et al., 2001) when haviors of children with autism. Comprehensive assess-
compared with those of typically developing peers. This ment should include information about behaviors both at
study illustrates that for children with autism, behavioral home and at school to plan the most effective in-
responses to sensory experiences seem to be context re- tervention strategies. s

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Acknowledgments (Ed.), Autism: A sensorimotor approach to management (pp.
297311). Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen.
We thank Lisa Mische-Lawson, MEd, PhD, CRTS, and Dunn, W. (1994). Performance of typical children on the
Jeff Radel, PhD, for their assistance with statistical analyses Sensory Profile: An item analysis. American Journal of Oc-
and editing. We also acknowledge the Psychological Cor- cupational Therapy, 48, 967974.
poration, which assisted with the data collection process. Dunn, W. (1997). The impact of sensory processing abilities
on the daily lives of young children and their families: A
This study was completed in partial fulfillment of Natalie
conceptual model. Infants and Young Children, 9, 2335.
Bennett Browns requirements for a master of science Dunn, W. (1999). The Sensory Profile: Users manual. San An-
degree in occupational therapy. tonio, TX: Psychological Corporation.
Dunn, W. (2001). The sensations of everyday life: Empirical,
theoretical, and pragmatic considerations (Eleanor Clarke
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