Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder is a disorder that causes difficulty with processing information from the senses: auditory, visual, touch, smell, movement and position. The sensory information is sensed but perceived abnormally, which can lead to distress, discomfort and confusion.

How Does SPD Relate to Autism?

While the presence of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is not required to diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it is prevalent in those who are on the spectrum.

Individuals who are not diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder can suffer from SPD. However, having SPD in addition to ASD can cause struggles with relationships, communication, self-awareness and safety.

Unfortunately, Sensory Processing Disorder is not yet recognized as a distinct disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, so children and adults who present with symptoms of SPD may receive a diagnosis of ASD instead in order to receive medical services.

However, research has shown that Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder present differing deficits of brain connectivity, which may help to have SPD recognized as an official disorder.

What Are the Challenges of SPD?

As babies, we learn about our world through our senses – we look, grab, touch, wiggle and even put things in our mouths. Individuals with SPD experience these same sensory inputs but, because they are not processed as they should be, their knowledge of the world and self is distorted.

Some individuals with SPD may experience over-responsivity, meaning that they exhibit extreme discomfort and aversion when encountering stimuli. Some examples include:

  • Dislike or food or fabric textures.
  • Adverse reaction to normal sounds, including one’s own heartbeat.
  • Serious discomfort related to everyday smells.

Individuals may also experience under-responsivity, in which their reaction to stimuli is sluggish or non-existent. For example:

  • No spatial awareness (where the body is in space).
  • High pain tolerances.

Sensory Processing Disorder can also manifest as sensory cravings, such as fidgeting or making loud noises in order to fulfill a sensory need.

Dealing With SPD

Most experts recommend a “Sensory Diet” when it comes to dealing with Sensory Processing Disorder. A “Sensory Diet” is a treatment that involves performing different physical activities to help deal with over- or under-whelming effects of SPD – it has nothing to do with food.

The activities are designed to meet the individual’s sensory needs, whether they need to calm from over-stimulation or need help to focus and become alert when under-stimulated.

Here are some examples of a “Sensory Diet”:

  • With oral motor sensitivity issues, actions that involve sucking (sucking thick liquids through a straw or having a popsicle) can help with calming an individual with SPD. Activities that involve crunching, such as eating raw vegetables or hard candies, can help an individual become more alert.
  • Visually agitated individuals may be calmed by dim lights, fire light, a clean and clear space and soft colours. In order to become more visually alert, bright lights, changing patterns of light and more vibrant colours may be helpful.
  • Those who have issues with sound may find soft, melodic music, white noise and repetitive sounds calming while loud and quick paced music, changing sounds and hand held instruments may help them become more alert.
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