Autism & Sensory Processing Disorder: The Connection
Sensory processing disorder and autism commonly overlap, as individuals with autism regularly struggle to process sensory information.
In fact, over 90% of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) also have sensory issues. Hypersensitivity to loud noise, touch, and light are common sensory issues.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder involving difficulties with communication, socialization issues, and repetitive and ritualistic behaviors. And sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a neurological disorder that causes a person to have a hard time understanding and responding to external stimuli.
Care teams individualize treatment plans for comorbid autism and sensory processing disorder to meet each person’s unique needs. They typically include both behavioral and occupational therapies.
What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Your five senses — touch, smell, sight, sound, and taste — help you to interact and understand the world around you.
For someone with 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. Lights can be too bright, sounds too loud, textures too scratchy, and foods too spicy, for instance. Difficulties processing sensory information can then lead to frustration and behavioral issues.
Symptoms of SPD often include the following:
- Overall irritability
- Jumpiness and anxiety
- Temper tantrums
- Social isolation
- Unpredictable behaviors
- Easily distracted
- Slow processing abilities
- Trouble following instructions
Problems With Vestibular Senses
People also have vestibular senses. These are beyond the typical five senses we are all familiar with. They include information related to how our body and limbs work together and are connected, as well as our body’s orientation to the world around us. People with SPD also have difficulties using these senses, which can lead to motor skill issues.
Someone with sensory processing disorder may have issues with the following:
- 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 body work 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. The disorder is present when issues with sensory processing interfere with daily life functioning.
The 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 is an indicator of autism, however. Not all children with autism will also struggle with sensory issues and SPD, but studies show that three-quarters of children with autism also have signs of sensory processing disorder.
Initially called sensory integration dysfunction, sensory processing disorder has yet to be accepted as a standalone disorder. Research is ongoing, as is the push to have SPD formally considered in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Treatment Methods for Overlapping Sensory Processing Disorder & Autism
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.
If you suspect overlapping sensory processing disorder with autism in your child, talk to your child’s pediatrician and work with your medical providers to ensure that both disorders are addressed. Treatment should be specific to the needs of each child individually, as there is no single standard of care that will work for everyone.
Treatment methods may include:
- Behavioral therapies, such as applied behavior analysis (ABA), which 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 to help entire families learn how to work together and support each other.
Occupational therapy (OT) is a common component of autism treatment and considered one of the optimal ways to manage sensory processing disorder. OT is regularly included as part of an early intervention or educational plan through the school system. It is also offered through private providers and performed in a variety of settings, including clinics, schools, and within the home.
Occupational therapy uses play and sensory tactics to help a person gain real-life skills. An occupational therapist will work with a person to first assess their strengths and weaknesses and then to build attainable goals along with a plan to reach them.
OT can improve the way a person responds to stimuli and the world around them. The overarching goal of occupational therapy is to help someone better function independently by improving daily life skills.
Sensory Integration Therapy
Sensory integration therapy is a component of occupational therapy carried out by an occupational therapy practitioner. This type of therapy works to change the way the brain reacts to incoming stimuli through the senses, including sight, sound, touch, and movement by using play.
Individual goals help a person better tolerate sensory information so they can participate more fully in regular life. For example, a child with food aversions based on touch can learn how to touch food in a less distressing way, working toward a goal of being able to eat a meal peacefully and successfully.
Sensory integration therapy uses different tools and approaches, such as:
- Playdough, water, and sand to increase tactile awareness and improve touch sensitivities.
- Swings, scooter boards, and therapy balls to enhance vestibular movement and increase balance and coordination.
- Vibration products or toys to provide calming or stimulating input.
- Deep pressure activities and products to relax and regulate the senses and body.
Sensory integration therapy can be widely creative and an effective method for improving a child’s ability to process things through the senses.
Creating a Sensory Diet to Manage Sensory Issues
Another tool used by occupational therapy practitioners is the creation of a sensory “diet.” This sensory diet is a treatment approach that can be used by families, parents, and caregivers to utilize things that have a calming effect on the specific individual.
The sensory diet focuses on the individual’s specific sensory needs. It can also help to increase sensory exposure in a gradual manner to improve tolerance. A sensory diet is not food-related, although it can include meal and eating habits.
A sensory diet typically consists of activities that can be practiced various times a day. These methods help a child stabilize if they are overstimulated. They can also provide sensory input that the body needs throughout the day to improve attention, focus, regulation abilities, responsiveness, and adaptability. Children can often learn how to perform these activities on their own to help regulate themselves.
While families will contribute valuable information that factors into the sensory diet, the treatment plan will need to be created and overseen by a licensed occupational therapy provider.
Helping Children Cope With Sensory Processing Disorder & Autism
There are many tools that parents can use to help children manage SPD and autism. While therapy and professional care are the most important ways to help your child, the work you do at home in everyday life is also of vital importance.
There are some basic things you can do to support your child’s mental health. Sensory processing disorder and autism include challenges that are unique to your child. Changes to the environment can help.
Try these solutions:
- Use noise-cancelling headphones for loud and crowded areas if your child is sensitive to noise.
- Consider weighted blankets and jackets for children who become overly stimulated. These tools can help them to feel regulated and calm.
- Talk to a child’s teacher about interventions in the classroom, such as advance notice of fire drills or a special cushion for their chair.
- Provide clothing that is “tagless.” It is less likely to be itchy for children with tactile sensitivities.
- Lower the lights in a room, as bright lights can be overwhelming for children who are sensitive to visual input.
- Educate yourself and the people in your child’s life on their specific needs and what works best.
Managing SPD & Autism in Adults
The combination of sensory processing disorder and autism in adults is going to have a different set of challenges than it does for children. For instance, occupational therapy interventions for children often focus on helping them succeed in a classroom setting, and they regularly use play to help with sensory processing. In order to help adults with both SPD and autism, interventions center on self-care skills, helping them to become more independent and function well in daily life.
Occupational therapy services are still considered the optimal treatment for adults, and they can be used to help clients better process and integrate sensory information.
Occupational therapy for adults is also highly individual. Since autism is a spectrum disorder, the level of disability can vary greatly. OT for adults will be highly specific to an individual’s level of disability and treatment goals.
OT and sensory integration techniques can help adults with autism and SPD better care for themselves, become more independent and self-reliant, and also potentially work outside the home and perform better in the workplace.
Resources for SPD & Autism
There are several resources available out there for parents, children, families, and individuals with sensory processing disorder and autism.
- Your pediatrician or primary care provider: This is often the first place to seek help and insight into what local resources are available for you or your child. The doctor can also offer referrals to specialists who can help.
- Autism Response Team (ART): Hosted by Autism Speaks, this toll-free information line can connect families with personalized resources for autism support.
- National Autism Association (NAA): NAA hosts local chapters. They also provide online resources for families and information on finding a local support group for autism.
- Sensory Processing Disorder Parent Support: This community provides resources and information for parents of children with SPD.
- SPD Support: This organization provides resources and support for families impacted by sensory processing disorder.
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