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How autism and sensory processing disorder are linked

“Do you think sensory issues are at the root of what makes autistic people different?”  

That’s the powerful question that Maia Szalavitz of TIME Magazine asked world-renowned professor, author, and self-advocate Temple Grandin in a 2013 interview.

Grandin’s reply? “I think the core criterion is the social awkwardness, but the sensory issues are a serious problem …. they make it impossible to operate in the environment where you’re supposed to be social.”

With that statement, Grandin linked sensory issues and socialization, and hinted at the relationship between sensory processing disorder (SPD) and autism as well.

SPD is a condition that affects the way that the brain communicates with the rest of the body. When the brain of an individual with SPD receives sensory information through the nervous system, it has trouble converting those signals into typical reactions.

As a result, the individual’s physical, emotional, and social responses appear unusual. Plus, SPD can manifest differently from one day to the next, further complicating the issue.

A Glimpse of Sensory Processing Disorder

What does this phenomenon look like in everyday life? Well, it may look very familiar to you as a parent. The symptoms of SPD overlap with stereotypically autistic behaviors.

Though SPD isn’t part of the formal diagnostic criteria for autism, sensory issues are prevalent among the ASD population.

Do you recognize your child in these descriptions?  

  • One morning, your son is comfortable with brushing his teeth. However, the next morning he protests that the toothpaste is “too spicy” or that the bristles are “too sharp”.
  • One afternoon, your daughter enjoys the sound of classical music playing on the car speakers at a preset volume. But the next day, she exclaims that the very same volume level is “too loud” and that it hurts her ears.

If these examples hit home, know that your child with autism isn’t trying to manipulate or gaslight you. Children with SPD really do experience sensory input differently from day to day. At times they struggle to process accustomed sights, sounds, tastes, scents, or touches.

As is the case with autism, SPD impacts every area of functioning. It affects everything from socialization to academics.

(Speaking of school, be sure to check out our blog post, A back-to-school checklist for kids with sensory processing disorder and receive your free downloadable checklist.)

SPD and ASD: Significant Overlap

But what’s the connection between SPD and ASDs? Are they one and the same?

As we wrote in our blog post, What we know about autism and sensory processing disorder,

“Think of the two conditions as circles in a Venn diagram; each circle is self-contained, but the overlap between them is significant.

Sensory processing disorder occurs much more frequently in children with autism than in the general population. According to this SPD Foundation website articleover 75% of children with autism also have symptoms of SPD …. However, the majority of individuals with SPD do not have autism.”

ASD and SPD are not the same, but the overlap between them is significant. Both are brain-based differences, neurological conditions that impact a child’s development.

ASD SPD Venn Diagram

Furthermore, SPD is similar to ASD in that it doesn’t indicate a low level of cognitive ability. It simply means that the brain is misinterpreting some sensory signals. Even individuals with high levels of functioning deal with sensory difficulties.

As Chantal Sicile-Kira wrote in her Psychology Today column, What is Sensory Processing Disorder and How Is It Related to Autism?,

“I have yet to meet a person on the autism spectrum who does not have a challenge in [sensory processing]. In interviewing adults and teenagers of different ability levels …. most of them stated sensory processing challenges as the number one difficulty for them, regardless of where they were on the spectrum.”

Helping a child with SPD

Children with autism and sensory processing disorder can grow and excel, and ABA therapy is an effective way to teach appropriate responses. That said, it’s also helpful to pursue occupational therapy for SPD specifically.

It’s also worth noting that, since SPD isn’t listed in the DSM-V, your best bet for getting related therapy covered by insurance could be seeking out autism-based service providers with a focus on sensory integration issues.

If you’re concerned about the possibility of SPD, know that a program of ABA therapy can support your child’s neurological development.