Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) vs. Autism
Sensory overload aspects of day-to-day life can happen to anyone, but when sensations become overwhelming on a regular basis this may be a disorder. Sensory processing involves the ability to take in, organize, and make sense of different kinds of sensations received by the brain.
Sensory processing disorder and autism commonly overlap, as individuals with autism regularly struggle to process sensory information. Rates of sensory processing dysfunction may be as high as 90% in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder and are estimated to be between 5% and 16% in the general population1.
But that doesn’t mean that any child with SPD is also diagnosed with autism. Someone with autism can exhibit a wide variety of symptoms such as being non-verbal or delayed in speech, obsessive interests, low to no social skills, avoiding eye contact, unusual eating and sleeping habits, meltdowns, and unusual mood or emotional reactions2. When children present with sensory processing impairments in the absence of any other childhood disorder, it is known as Sensory Processing Disorder.
Sensory Processing Disorder Explained
The body has five primary senses including touch, sight, sound, taste, and smell. However, three more senses exist called vestibular senses that are important in the scope of sensory processing disorder. Your body has five primary senses: touch, sight, sound, taste, and smell.
Our bodies’ natural sense of head movement in space and balance, the sensation our muscles and joints give us, and the sensations that our organs’ natural sensors give us3. Each of these senses helps you with interacting and understanding the world around you.
Sensory Processing Disorder Symptoms
For someone with a sensory processing disorder, it’s possible that their nervous system does not function quite the way it is meant to, and sensory stimuli can overwhelm the system. These sensory issues make it difficult to respond properly. Difficulties processing sensory information can then lead to frustration and behavioral issues.
Symptoms of SPD often include4:
- Overall irritability
- Jumpiness and anxiety
- Temper tantrums
- Social isolation
- Unpredictable behaviors
- Easily distracted
- Slow processing abilities
- Trouble following instructions
Vestibular Senses Affects
- Balance: They may struggle with gross motor skills. They may have shaky limbs and bump into things.
- Coordination: Difficulties often exist with making the left side and right side of the bodywork together. This can make sports involving hand-eye coordination difficult.
- Fine motor skill issues: People with SPD often have trouble holding a pencil or crayon and therefore learning to write and color within lines. They may have difficulties putting puzzles together and cutting with scissors.
- Unfamiliar actions: This can make it difficult to learn something new, as the body does not know how to respond.
Too many things going on in the environment at once can overwhelm the brain of a person with SPD, making it difficult for them to react and respond rationally. As a result, they may get overloaded with information very quickly and easily.
Sensory processing disorder can impact all of the senses, a few, or only one. That is why SPD is so difficult to understand and diagnose. The person may have 1, 2, or up to 8 sensory systems involved and 1, 2, or up to 6 different subtypes4. The disorder is present when issues with sensory processing interfere with daily life functioning.
Some examples include jumping off tall things or swinging too high on the playground. Also, children with SPD are not always just one or the other. They can be a mixture of oversensitive and under-sensitive.
Under-sensitive or sensory-seeking behavior often includes5:
- Can’t sit still
- Seek thrills (loves jumping, heights, and spinning).
- Can spin without getting dizzy
- Don’t pick up on social cues like recognizing personal space
- Chew on things (including their hands and clothing)
- Seek visual stimulation (like electronics)
- Have problems sleeping
- Don’t recognize when their face is dirty or their nose is running
How is SPD Diagnosed?
Parents may recognize their child’s behavior is not typical but most parents may not know why. Discussing your child’s behavior with your doctor may be beneficial to finding a diagnosis and treatment.
The doctor may refer you to an occupational therapist. These professionals can assess your child for SPD. They will likely watch your child interact in certain situations and ask your child a range of questions. All of these things will help make a diagnosis.
Sensory Processing Disorder Treatment
Treatment is usually done through therapy. Research shows that starting therapy early is key for treating SPD. Therapy can help children learn how to manage their challenges.
Therapy sessions are led by a trained therapist. They will help you and your child learn how to cope with the disorder. Sessions are based on if your child is oversensitive, under-sensitive, or a combination of both.
Sensory Integration Therapy (SI)
A sensory diet at school might include5:
- A time every hour when your child could go for a 10-minute walk
- A time twice a day when your child could swing for 10 minutes
- Access to in-class headphones so your child can listen to music while working
- Access to fidget toys
- Access to a desk chair bungee cord gives your child a way to move their legs while sitting in the classroom
Autism is a developmental disorder that, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, has specific criteria for the diagnosis. Human development occurs in stages with milestones that are met or exceeded over time. During the early stages of a child’s development, children begin to communicate and socialize, beginning with their parents, while reacting to and showing emotions.
Deficiencies that persist in these areas could be a problem. A child may repeat certain behaviors or have restrictive mannerisms or interests6. Some children may show stimming behavior, such as hand flapping and repetitive noises, while others may need a toy to be placed in exactly the same spot each time, with a dislike for any disruption or change.
Autism can cause a child to learn, react, and attend to details differently. If an intellectual disability or an intellectual developmental disorder is not the sole cause of these deficiencies, with a child’s socialization and communication being below what is typical for their level of development, this could be a sign of autism. Because there is no medical test to diagnose, a doctor would need to look at the developmental milestones and the child’s behavior while considering any parental input about the child6.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is named due to the spectrum of disorders within the category. These would include autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified.
Causes of Autism
Treatment for Autism
While there is no cure for autism, early treatment is better for development, with therapy aiding in speech delays, walking, and social interaction. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that a child under the age of 36 months who may have a developmental delay could possibly qualify for services within their local district.
Treatment methods for autism include6:
- Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): behavioral treatment to help encourage desired behaviors and discourage undesired behaviors to improve skills
- Sensory Integration Therapy (SI): helps improve symptoms related to sensory input being restrictive or overwhelming
- Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS):stimulation of specific regions of the brain may help improve behavioral deficits in people with autism9
Link Between Sensory Processing Disorder & Autism
Sensory processing disorder is not recognized as a formal medical diagnosis on its own, but it may exist separate from a diagnosis of autism. Difficulties with sensory processing are an indicator of autism; however, not all children with autism will also struggle with sensory issues and SPD. Still, studies show that three-quarters of children with autism also have signs of sensory processing disorder7.
Sensory processing disorder and autism so commonly overlap that most treatment methods will include methods for managing sensory issues and symptoms of autism together. For the best outcome, both SPD and autism should be treated simultaneously through a comprehensive treatment plan where the entire intervention team targets symptoms of both disorders.
Treatment for SPD & Autism
Treatment methods may include8:
- Behavioral therapies, such as applied behavior analysis (ABA), can aid in promoting desired behaviors while decreasing unwanted actions through positive reinforcement.
- Occupational therapy, including sensory integration therapy and implementation of a sensory “diet” that helps with sensory processing and improvement in daily life functioning.
- Speech and language therapy to improve communication and lower frustration levels.
- Social skills and support groups for peer interactions and teaching life skills.
- Family therapies help entire families learn how to work together and support each other.
- Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) that can focus on particular areas of the brain that can benefit from stimulation and reduce symptoms of SPD and ASD.
Get Help with SPD & Autism
Although sensory processing disorder affects many, people with ASD are more likely to experience it. People with autism tend to also be diagnosed with SPD, but not everyone with autism has this additional disorder. Treatment for autism and sensory processing disorder can include therapy, medication, or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).
If you or a loved one are struggling with symptoms of SPD, autism, or both reach out to Brain Center TMS today. Our team can answer any questions you may have and give you a better understanding of our program.
- Schoen, S. A., Miller, L. J. (2009, November 3). Physiological and behavioral differences in sensory processing: a comparison of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Sensory Modulation Disorder. Retrieved May 28th, 2022 from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/neuro.07.029.2009/full
- Darby, S. (2016, October 7). Here’s How Sensory Processing Disorder Is Different From Autism. Retrieved May 28th, 2022 from https://www.romper.com/p/how-is-sensory-processing-disorder-different-from-autism-19876
- STAR Institute (2022). Your 8 Senses. Retrieved May 28th, 2022 from https://sensoryhealth.org/basic/your-8-senses
- Chang, Y., Owen, J.P. (2014 July 30) Autism and Sensory Processing Disorders: Shared White Matter Disruption in Sensory Pathways but Divergent Connectivity in Social-Emotional Pathways. Retrieved May 28th, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4116166/
- American Academy of Family Physicians (2020, August 31). Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Retrieved May 28th, 2022 from https://familydoctor.org/condition/sensory-processing-disorder-spd/
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2022, March 31). What is Autism Spectrum Disorder? Retrieved May 28th, 2022 from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html
- Marco, J. E., Hill, S.S.(2011, May) Sensory Processing in Autism: A Review of Neurophysiologic Findings. Retrieved May 28th, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3086654/
- Deweerdt, S. (2016, June 1) Talking sense: What sensory processing disorder says about autism. Retrieved May 28th, 2022 from https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/talking-sense-what-sensory-processing-disorder-says-about-autism/
- Oberman, L. M., Rotenberg, A., & Pascual-Leone, A. (2015, February). Use of transcranial magnetic stimulation in autism spectrum disorders. Retrieved June 1, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4519010/