Study Shows Autistic People Feel Pain More Than Others

By Hamodia Staff

YERUSHALAYIM – A new study conducted by scientists in Israel has found that people with autism experience pain at a higher level of intensity than the general population and are less adaptable to the sensation.

The finding runs contrary to the prevalent belief that people with autism are ‘indifferent to pain’.  In fact, ‘indifference to pain’ is one of the characteristics presented in the current diagnostic criteria of autism.

The proof of this was, supposedly, their tendency to inflict pain on themselves by self-harm.  Dr. Tami Bar-Shalita of Tel Aviv University, who initiated the study, said: “This assumption is not necessarily true. We know that self-harm could stem from attempts to suppress pain, and it could be that they hurt themselves in order to activate, unconsciously, a physical mechanism of ‘pain inhibits pain’.”

The researchers: “We conducted a variety of measurements, aimed among other things at examining whether the hypersensitivity to pain derives from a sensitized nervous system or from suppression of mechanisms that are supposed to enable adjustment and, over time, reduce the response to the stimulus. We found that in the case of people with autism, it is a combination of the two: an increase of the pain signal along with a less effective pain inhibition mechanism.”

The laboratory study was approved by the ethics committee of the academic institutions and Rambam Medical Center. The study included 52 adults with high-functioning autism (HFA) and normal intelligence – hitherto the largest reported sample in the world in studies on pain among people with autism. The study made use of psychophysical tests to evaluate pain, commonly used in the area of pain study. These methods examine the link between stimulus and response, while the researcher, using a computer, controls the duration and intensity of stimulus and the examinee is asked to rank the intensity of the pain felt by him on a scale of 0 to 100. The findings have proven beyond doubt that people with autism hurt more. Furthermore, their pain suppression mechanism is less effective.

Dr. Bar-Shalita explains: “Approximately 10% of the general population suffer from sensory modulation dysfunction, which means sensory hypersensitivity at a level that compromises normal daily functioning and quality of life.” Dr. Bar-Shalita gave examples of this phenomenon; difficulty ignoring or adapting to the buzzing or flickering of fluorescent lights, the humming of air conditioners or fans, and people chewing food nearby.

“In previous studies in the lab we found that these people suffer from pain more than those without sensory modulation dysfunction,” Dr. Bar-Shalita continued. “Since it is known that sensory modulation dysfunction occurs in people with autism at a rate of 70-90%, it constitutes a criterion for diagnosing autism, and is associated with its severity. We were interested in exploring pain perception in autism, so we asked: do people with autism hurt more than the general population? This question was hardly studied in the lab before we got started.”

The researchers expressed the hope that the findings of their study will lead to more appropriate treatment on the part of medical staff, caregivers, and parents toward people with autism, who do not always express the experience of pain in the usual way.

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