Home » Blog » Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism: How Are They Connected?

Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism: How Are They Connected?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) are two conditions frequently associated with each other. Studies indicate that up to 90% of kids with autism also struggle with sensory processing problems. But what is sensory processing disorder, and how is it connected to Autism? This article explores the link between ASD and SPD, and how it affects those dealing with it.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

person with spd and asd holding a carboard cutout of an eye on their face

Sensory processing disorder, also called “sensory integration disorder” is a developmental condition. It’s when the brain has difficulty receiving information from the senses and responding correctly. This includes the five main senses as well as the lesser-known senses.

Senses affected by SPD:

  • Sight
  • Sound
  • Touch
  • Taste
  • Smell
  • Proprioception – the sense of body position
  • Vestibular -the sense of balance and movement

Children and adults with SPD can be over or under-sensitive to certain sensory stimuli. This causes difficulties with processing and responding to their environment appropriately. For example, a child with sensory issues may be extremely sensitive (hypersensitive) to loud noises and become overwhelmed and anxious in noisy places. On the other hand, they may have a high threshold for pain and not react to injuries as expected.

What is Autism?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental disorder affecting communication, social interaction, and behavior. Autistics exist on a spectrum, meaning that autism presents differently in everyone and can range from mild to severe.

Some common characteristics of autism include:

  • Difficulty with social interactions
  • Repetitive behaviors
  • Challenges with communication

People with autism frequently have sensory issues, making it hard for them to process and respond to sensory stimuli.

The Connection Between Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism

child with autism and spd plays with sensory toys at home

Co-occurrence rate

As mentioned, research shows that up to 90% of autistic kids also have sensory processing challenges. This is because both conditions involve difficulties with processing and responding to external (and internal) sensory information.

For those with autism, sensory processing issues can exacerbate their challenges with communication and social interactions.

For instance, an child with autism might have a hard time understanding social cues. They may become excessively stimulated in social environments due to sensory overload.

SPD can cause Autism-like symptoms

On the other hand, sensory processing disorder can also make someone exhibit behaviors and characteristics similar to those with autism.

This includes:

  • Difficulty with social interactions
  • Repetitive behaviors
  • Challenges with communication

However, unlike autism, individuals with SPD do not have the same difficulties with social understanding and communication.

Hypersensitivity and Hyposensitivity in SPD and ASD

Hypersensitivity (Over-Responsivity)

  • SPD: In SPD, hypersensitivity refers to an intense response to stimuli. It can make someone easily overwhelmed by ordinary sensory experiences, such as loud noises, bright lights, or certain textures.
  • ASD: Hypersensitivity is common in autistic adults and kids. They may display heightened reactions to sensory input, leading to discomfort or distress. For example, they might cover their ears in response to loud sounds or avoid certain textures in clothing.

Hyposensitivity (Under-Responsivity)

  • SPD: Hyposensitivity in sensory processing disorder involves a decreased response to sensory stimuli. Individuals may engage in sensory-seeking behaviors, searching for intense sensory experiences to compensate for a lack of responsiveness. For instance, they might crave strong tastes, seek deep pressure, or engage in repetitive movements. This is also known as stimming.
  • ASD: Similar to SPD, individuals with ASD can also exhibit hyposensitivity. They might not respond as expected to sensory input, requiring more intense stimuli to elicit a response. This can mean having less reaction to pain or feeling the need for more sensory stimulation, which is also called stimming.

How are SPD and Autism Diagnosed?

autism and adhd specialist in new york city assesses a new client for sensory processing disorder and autism

Diagnosing SPD and autism can be challenging, as both conditions can present differently in each person. However, there are key differences in the diagnostic criteria for each condition.

Sensory Processing Disorder Diagnosis

SPD is not currently recognized as a standalone disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, it’s recognized as a condition that can co-occur with other disorders, such as autism and ADHD.

To diagnose SPD, a healthcare professional will typically use a combination of questionnaires, clinical observations, and standardized assessments. They will also consider medical history and any other co-occurring conditions.

Autism Diagnosis

Autism is diagnosed using the criteria outlined in the DSM-5. These criteria include difficulties with social communication and interaction, restricted and repetitive behaviors, and symptoms that are present in early childhood.

To receive an autism diagnosis, you must exhibit symptoms in all three areas and have difficulties with daily functioning. A qualified professional will use a combination of parent and teacher questionnaires, clinical observations, and standardized assessments to make their diagnosis.

👀 Click here to read more about what to expect after a new Autism diagnosis.

Treatment for SPD and Autism

While there is no known cure for SPD or autism, there are treatments available to assist individuals in managing their symptoms and improving their daily functioning.

Sensory Integration Therapy

sensory integration therapy for children and adults with spd or autism spectrum disorder - sensory swing

Sensory Integration Therapy is an intervention method designed to address difficulties in processing and responding to sensory information.

For people with sensory processing disorder, this therapy can improve the brain’s ability to organize and interpret sensory input. Ultimately, this can reduce sensitivities or enhance responsiveness.

In the context of autism, where sensory challenges are common, Sensory Integration Therapy helps them manage sensory stimuli more effectively. This can lead to better engagement with their environment.

By incorporating activities that stimulate various senses, this therapy assists in refining motor skills, emotional regulation, and overall adaptive behaviors for those with SPD and autism. It provides a structured approach to navigating the intricacies of sensory experiences, fostering improved daily functioning.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy

ABA therapy is a type of therapy that focuses on improving behavior and social skills in individuals with autism. This therapy uses positive reinforcement techniques to teach new skills and reduce challenging behaviors.

Speech Therapy

Speech therapy is a specialized form of therapy to improve verbal and non-verbal communication skills.

For SPD, speech therapy addresses challenges related to sensory sensitivities, helping to develop effective communication strategies while in a shutdown or burnout state.

For autism, speech therapy focuses on improving social communication, language comprehension, and expressive language skills. Overall, it can help with better speaking and language use.

Coping Strategies for Autism and Sensory Issues

In addition to therapy, there are also various coping strategies that individuals with SPD and autism can use to manage their symptoms and improve their daily functioning.

Sensory Diets

A sensory diet is not an actual diet!

Instead, a sensory diet is a personalized plan that includes specific activities and strategies to help people with SPD regulate their sensory input. This can include activities such as deep pressure, swinging, and tactile play.

Visual Schedules

daily visual routine schedule chart for people with autism, adhd, and or sensory processing disorder (spd)

Visual schedules are very helpful for people with autism because they show clear and real pictures of daily tasks and routines. By using visual elements like pictures, symbols, or icons, autistics can better comprehend and anticipate daily routines and activities more effectively.

This can significantly reduce their anxiety levels, which can keep sensory overwhelm at bay.

Sensory-Friendly Environments

Creating a sensory-friendly environment can help individuals with SPD and autism feel more comfortable and reduce sensory overload.

This can include:

  • Dim lighting
  • Soft or warm lights as opposed to fluorescent lights
  • Soft music or ambient sounds
  • Providing sensory tools such as fidget toys

Conclusion

Autism and sensory processing disorder are two often connected conditions due to shared symptoms and sensory processing difficulties. While no cure exists for these conditions, multiple treatment approaches and tactics to manage symptoms are available that can enhance their day-to-day functioning.

By understanding the connection between SPD and autism, we can better support and advocate for individuals with these conditions.

Scroll to Top