Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder

How are they connected?

“Do you think sensory issues are at the root of what makes autistic people different?” 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 this statement, Grandin linked sensory issues and socialization and hinted at the relationship between sensory processing disorder and autism.

SPD affects the way 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. SPD also can manifest differently from one day to the next, further complicating the issue.

A glimpse of SPD

SPD’s symptoms overlap with stereotypically autistic behaviors. Although 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 this description? One morning, your child 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.”

If this example hits home, know that your child isn’t trying to manipulate 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.  

Overlap between SPD & ASD

What’s the connection between SPD and autism spectrum disorders? Think of the two conditions as circles in a Venn diagram; each circle is self-contained, but the overlap between them is significant. Both are brain-based differences, neurological conditions that impact
a child’s development.

According to the SPD Foundation, over 75 percent of children with autism also have symptoms of SPD. However, the majority of individuals with SPD do not have autism.

SPD also is similar to ASD in that it doesn’t indicate low cognitive ability. It simply means that the brain is misinterpreting some sensory signals. Even individuals with high levels of cognitive function can have sensory difficulties.

Help a child with SPD

Children with autism and SPD can grow and excel. ABA therapy is an effective way to teach appropriate responses to social situations. Occupational therapy specifically for SPD also can help children better process sensory information. Parents should seek autism-based service providers with a focus on sensory integration issues. 

This article was contributed by FirstPath Autism.

FirstPath Autism is an organization dedicated to the education, training and awareness of evidence-based autism treatment developed by the Founder, Romina Kiryakous at the Genesis Behavior Center in Turlock, CA. The treatment practiced at Genesis is based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), the most widely covered treatment for autism by insurance companies. In 2015, Kiryakous developed FirstPath Autism, a personalized online education, support, and training program dedicated to the parents and caregivers of children with autism. The goal of FirstPath Autism is to offer an autism lifeline to parents and to help care givers better serve children with autism.
Twitter: @FirstPathAutism
Categories: Autism Research & Advice, Special Needs Parenting