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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.

What we know about Autism and sensory processing disorder

If you’ve ever lived in a home while it’s under renovation, you know how stressful the experience can be. From unexpected changes to loud noises, the construction experience tests the patience of many a neurotypical adult.

With that in mind, consider how it might feel to live in a world that’s constantly ‘under construction’. This metaphor offers a window into the sensory experience of many individuals with autism.

As autism sibling Caroline McGraw notes in “Under Construction”, “Imagine going through life in kind of constant, internal ‘renovation’. It’s nearly impossible for … people who don’t have autism to comprehend how overwhelming that must be … what an assault on one’s senses, and one’s sense of familiarity and comfort.”

Clearly, there is a sensory component to autism. But what exactly is the difference between autism and sensory processing disorder? What does the most recent research indicate about treatment? And how can you support your child if you’ve received a dual diagnosis? Read on to find out.

Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder: What’s the difference?

First, the two are not the same, but they are connected. Think of the two conditions as circles in a Venn diagram; each circle is self-contained, but the overlap between them is significant.

ASD and SPD Venn Diagram

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. (This 2014 UCSF article puts the figure at 90%.) However, the majority of individuals with SPD do not have autism.

As you might know, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a brain-based developmental disorder, and individuals on the spectrum have varying degrees of social, behavioral, and communicative challenges. It is listed in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V).

SPD is also brain-based, and it arises when an individual’s brain has difficulty sorting and utilizing the sensory information sent by the body. The disorder is similar to autism in that it manifests differently in each person. However, it is not currently listed in the DSM-V.

How does Sensory Processing Disorder manifest?

The saying, “When you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism,” applies to Sensory Processing Disorder as well. No two individuals process the world in exactly the same way, so manifestations of SPD vary tremendously.

For example, one child with SPD might have trouble receiving sensory signals. Being hyposensitive (that is, under-sensitive), he might not feel the pain of a sunburn, or the chill of cold water. Another child with SPD might feel overwhelmed and hypersensitive to ‘ordinary’ touch and tactile experiences, such as hugging or wearing clothes with seams.

As the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation website notes,

“… SPD [is like] a neurological ‘traffic jam’ that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly.”

Thus, the ability to cope with certain sensory inputs fluctuates in both ASD and SPD-diagnosed individuals. For instance, have you ever seen your child overreact to the sound of a car horn one day, then act as if he doesn’t hear it the next day?

If so, know that this kind of disconcerting shift is common for individuals with SPD. That said, such unpredictability can trigger stress for you as a parent, since you don’t know what sensory experiences will trigger problems for your child from one day to the next.

You can lessen the anxiety by taking steps to prepare. Check out our recent post, “A Back-to-School Checklist for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder” for specific daily-life tips.

What interventions help?

Finally, individuals with autism and sensory processing disorder benefit enormously from early intervention. In fact, sensory difficulties may be the first sign of an autism spectrum disorder.

When it comes to seeking therapy for sensory issues, it’s helpful to have an autism-spectrum diagnosis, as SPD is not a DSM-V diagnosis and thus not covered under insurance plans. (That said, there is talk within the medical community of integrating SPD into an updated version of the DSM-V.)

If your child struggles with everyday sensory experiences such as hair-brushing or going barefoot, occupational therapy can help.

Common OT exercises for SPD include bouncing on a trampoline, swimming, or playing in a ball pit. These multimodal activities allow the brains of children with SPD to practice processing a diverse set of physical sensations. Sand play, water play, Play-Doh, swings, and play tunnels and are also popular.

As the Parents.com article by Betsy Stephens, “Kids who feel too much”says,

“Treatment [for SPD] consists of carefully designed, multisensory activities …. to help build neural pathways that can lead to appropriate responses to information that comes into a child’s brain through the senses.”

ABA therapy also plays a crucial role for individuals with both autism and sensory processind disorder.

ABA helps to extinguish negative behavioral patterns and promote positive ones, and that’s vital for individuals whose sensory processing disorder may have led them to engage in inappropriate coping behaviors.

ABA also sheds light on the function of a child’s behavior, and this is invaluable when it comes to supporting individuals with SPD. After all, behaviors that stimulate the senses (such as hair-pulling, bouncing, hand-flapping and other types of stimming) can serve several different purposes. It’s important to understand the function of a given behavior in order to modify it successfully.

And that’s why FirstPath Autism offers an accessible ABA video library: so that your child can learn, grow, and thrive.

A back-to-school checklist for kids with sensory processing disorder

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the sound of a sudden siren, or the itch of a scratchy shirt tag irritating your back? Or, conversely, have you ever numbed out sensations like pain, heat, or cold? If you can relate to these experiences, then you’ve had a small glimpse into what life is like with sensory processing disorder (SPD). Individuals with SPD have trouble translating their sensory experiences into useful, appropriate responses and behaviors.

At FirstPath Autism, we understand that every child is different. As the saying goes, “When you’ve met one child with autism … you’ve met one child with autism.” Yet while your child’s sensory experience of the world is unique, there’s a strong scientific connection between autism spectrum disorders and sensory processing issues.

As Juliana Bunim notes in her July 2014 University of California San Francisco article, “Kids with Autism, Sensory Processing Disorders Show Brain Wiring Differences”over 90 percent of individuals with autism also have sensory processing issues.

However, that’s not the whole story. Researchers have also discovered that, “children with sensory processing disorders have decreased structural brain connections in specific sensory regions different than those in autism, further establishing SPD as a clinically important neurodevelopmental disorder.” So while SPD is much more prevalent among individuals with autism, it’s also a distinct diagnosis in and of itself.

Empower your child with SPD to succeed in school this fall with these 5 steps:

First, help your child prepare mentally for the start of the school year. 

The transition from summer to school can be a bumpy one, and you can smooth it by reading relevant stories and books. You could also note the first day of school on a calendar and use a free online tool to create a moment-to-moment countdown clock. (Here’s a link to a free, live countdown timer with animations.) When you familiarize your child with the idea that school attendance is imminent, the prospect becomes less surprising and overwhelming.

Screen_Shot_2015-08-06_at_2.25.01_PM

You can also practice sensory integration exercises with your child. As noted in the December 2013 Autism Speaks article, “Study Finds Sensory Integration Therapy Benefits Children With Autism”, occupational therapy clinicians and parents can use play activities to help children with autism learn to process sensations.

For example, the article says, “… a parent of a child who wakes during the night due to extreme sensitivity to sounds might set a goal of improving tolerance of ordinary noises and sleeping through the night.” Step by gradual step, ABA therapy can help your child to decrease sensitivity and acclimate to ordinary noises. And when you help your child to address sensory processing issues, challenging behaviors and meltdowns often decrease.

Next, take practical measures to introduce your child to the new sensory experiences surrounding school. 

For example, you might do a walk-through of the school grounds, and meet with teachers, bus drivers, and other relevant support team members.

Likewise, you’ll want to look ahead and anticipate other sensory-specific issues. Include your child in the process of choosing a back-to-school wardrobe, and make sure that your child’s clothes are pre-washed to avoid that starchy, brand-new feeling. Cut or seam-rip out all tags to prevent irritation and distraction. Also be mindful of accessories; that necklace that you think is cute might be too distracting for your daughter to wear on her first day.

The same goes for school supplies. Avoid trendy items such as shiny, glittery folders or noise-making keychains if they contribute to sensory issues. Check to see if your child can hold a pencil comfortably, and invest in adaptive equipment such as soft pencil grippers if needed. Children with SPD often struggle with handwriting, so be sure to investigate writing implements and practice penmanship with your child outside of school.

The back-to-school season is also an ideal time to review the status of adaptive equipment. 

Check your child’s eyeglass prescription, replace their worn-out noise-canceling headphones, and ensure that mobility devices are functioning properly. Ascertain that as-needed medications are on hand and unexpired. It’s all too easy to forget about rarely-used inhalers or epipens, but it’s vital to ensure that they are both accessible and current.

(Hint: You might want to set an automatic reminder on your Google calendar or smartphone to help you remember to update these items regularly.)  

Once classes begin, connect with your child and ask precise questions. 

Rather than posing open-ended queries such as, “How was school?” ask specific questions about teachers, peers, and classes. For example, you might ask, “How did you feel during math class?” or, “Who did you say hello to today?”

Need more ideas? (We understand; it’s tough to come up with thought-provoking questions day after day!) Check out this set of free downloadable questions for kids from Momastery.

Finally, download our free Back-to-School Sensory Processing Disorder Checklist for Kids!

Download our free Back-to-School Checklist