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.