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Sensory Processing Disorder and ASD: The Overlapping Puzzle

Unravel the link between sensory processing disorder and ASD, and strategies to manage sensory challenges.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
April 8, 2024
8 min read
min read

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

The topic of sensory processing disorder and ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder, is a complex one. To understand the connection, let's first delve into ASD.

Defining Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by difficulties with social interaction, impaired communication, and certain repetitive behaviors. The 5th edition of the American Psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual sets forth the specific diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder.

One of the key elements of ASD is the presence of sensory issues. Each individual with autism is unique, and this includes their personal sensory sensitivities. They might experience both hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness) and hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness) to various stimuli.

Hypersensitivity can manifest as an intense response to stimuli like bright lights, certain light wavelengths, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes. This can lead to sensory avoidance behaviors like pulling away from physical touch, avoiding loud sounds by covering the ears, or refusing certain types of clothing.

On the other hand, hyposensitivity can appear as a constant need for movement, difficulty recognizing sensations like hunger or pain, an attraction to loud noises, bright lights, and vibrant colors. People who are hyposensitive might engage in sensory-seeking behaviors to get more sensory input from the environment.

Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder

ASD is estimated to affect 1 in 44 children in the United States. Boys are roughly four times more likely to be diagnosed with ASD compared to girls.

The prevalence of ASD has been on the rise in the recent years. While the reason for this increase is not fully understood, it is believed to be due in part to a broader definition of autism and better efforts in diagnosis. However, this increase also underscores the importance of understanding and addressing the unique needs of individuals with ASD, including the sensory challenges they often face.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and Its Relation to ASD

Unraveling the connection between Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is critical to understanding the unique challenges faced by individuals within these spectrums.

Defining Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition where the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. Individuals with SPD may have difficulties with touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound, as well as balance and body awareness. They may be extremely sensitive to certain sensory inputs and may be easily distracted. Fine motor skills may also be affected Autism Parenting Magazine.

Prevalence of Sensory Processing Disorder

SPD affects approximately 5-16% of school-aged children. This percentage illustrates a significant portion of the population grappling with sensory inputs in their daily lives. However, it's worth noting that these statistics represent a broader demographic, and not all children with SPD have ASD Autism Parenting Magazine.

Difference between SPD and ASD

While SPD and ASD share certain characteristics, they are separate conditions. SPD is often a comorbid symptom of ASD, meaning it can occur alongside ASD. However, not all individuals with SPD have ASD. In fact, it's possible to have SPD without any other developmental issues. A key distinction is that while over 80% of children with ASD also have SPD, the reverse is not true Autism Parenting Magazine.

One of the behaviors associated with ASD in the DSM-5 is "hyper or hypo reactivity to sensory input," which is also a characteristic of SPD. This overlap in symptoms can sometimes lead to confusion or misdiagnosis, but it's important to remember that while there's a significant overlap, the two are distinct conditions.

In summary, while there's a significant intersection between sensory processing disorder and ASD, they are distinct conditions with unique characteristics. A better understanding of both conditions will contribute to more effective strategies for managing and supporting individuals with SPD and ASD.

Sensory Challenges in ASD

When discussing the intersection of sensory processing disorder and ASD, it's critical to understand the sensory challenges that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder often face. These challenges can manifest as hyperreactivity or hyporeactivity to sensory input, and in some cases, can lead to sensory overload.

Hyperreactivity in ASD

Hyperreactivity refers to an increased, or hypersensitive, response to sensory stimulation. Individuals with ASD who experience hyperreactivity may be overly sensitive to certain stimuli, such as bright lights, specific sounds, smells, textures, or tastes, which can be overwhelming and stressful for them. This heightened sensitivity often leads to sensory avoidance behaviors, such as pulling away from physical touch, avoiding loud sounds by covering the ears, or refusing to wear certain types of clothing.

Hyporeactivity in ASD

On the other end of the spectrum is hyporeactivity, which involves a reduced, or hyposensitive, response to sensory stimuli. Many individuals with ASD exhibit hyporeactivity, which can manifest as a constant need for movement, difficulty recognizing sensations like hunger or pain, or an attraction to loud noises, bright lights, and vibrant colors. This can lead to sensory-seeking behaviors, where individuals actively seek out more sensory input from their environment.

Sensory Overload in ASD

A significant concern for many individuals with ASD is the potential for sensory overload. This occurs when an intense sensory stimulus overwhelms the individual's ability to cope, leading to feelings of intense anxiety, a need to escape the situation, or difficulty communicating [2]. Sensory overload can be triggered by a single event, such as a loud noise, or it can build up over time due to daily efforts to cope with sensory sensitivities.

Understanding and addressing these sensory challenges can help ease discomfort for individuals with ASD and open up opportunities for them to learn, socialize, and participate in the community [2]. This can involve modifying the environment, using specific tools or strategies, and creating new habits or routines tailored to individual sensory needs [2]. This all underscores the critical nature of understanding sensory processing disorder and ASD, and the intersecting challenges they present.

Components of Sensory Processing

Understanding the connection between Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) requires a deeper comprehension of the components of sensory processing. This is not limited to the basic five senses but extends to other key aspects of sensory function.

Five Basic Senses in Sensory Processing

As most people are aware, there are five basic senses that play a crucial role in how we interact with the world around us. These include:

  1. Taste
  2. Smell
  3. Hearing
  4. Seeing
  5. Touch

These senses allow us to perceive and interpret various stimuli, helping us navigate and understand our environment. They form the foundation of sensory processing and are crucial in the daily life of all individuals, including those with ASD.

Vestibular Function, Proprioception, and Interoception

In addition to the five basic senses, there are three other components of sensory processing that are less commonly known but equally important. These include:

  1. Vestibular Function: This sense involves the perception of our body in space, including balance and movement. It is essential for coordinating movements and maintaining postural control.
  2. Proprioception: Often referred to as the "sixth sense," proprioception involves the awareness of the position and movement of our body parts. It allows us to move seamlessly without having to consciously think about each motion.
  3. Interoception: This is the awareness of what is happening within one's own body, including the sensation of hunger, thirst, or discomfort. Interoception allows us to respond to internal signals, ensuring that our body's needs are met.

These additional components of sensory processing are essential for our overall sensory experience. They play a significant role in the lives of individuals with ASD, as these individuals often experience differences in these areas compared to those with typical development [3].

In understanding the components of sensory processing, it becomes clear that sensory experience extends beyond the basic five senses. This broadened perspective helps in comprehending the complexities of sensory experiences in individuals with ASD and SPD, paving the way for more effective strategies to support these individuals.

Addressing Sensory Challenges in ASD

Sensory issues are common in people with autism and are included in the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder. Each autistic person is unique, and this includes their personal sensory sensitivities. Autistic people might experience both hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness) and hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness) to various stimuli. Understanding and accommodating these sensory issues can help ease discomfort and open up opportunities for autistic individuals to learn, socialize, and participate in the community [2].

Accommodations for Sensory Challenges

Accommodations for sensory challenges in individuals with ASD may include modifying the environment, using tools, strategies, creating new habits, or routines tailored to individual sensory needs. For example, for those hypersensitive to bright lights, certain light wavelengths (e.g., LED or fluorescent lights), sounds, smells, textures, and tastes, accommodations could include dimming lights, reducing noise, or choosing comfortable clothing.

On the other hand, individuals experiencing hyposensitivity, which can manifest as a constant need for movement, difficulty recognizing sensations like hunger or pain, an attraction to loud noises, bright lights, and vibrant colors, may require different accommodations. These could include providing opportunities for movement breaks, using visual cues for meal times or to indicate potential hazards, or incorporating vibrant colors and sounds into their learning materials.

Accommodation Hypersensitive Hyposensitive
Environment Dim lights, reduce noise Provide movement breaks
Tools Comfortable clothing Vibrant learning materials
Habits/Routines Avoid certain smells or tastes Visual cues for meals or hazards

Strategies for Managing Sensory Overload

Sensory overload occurs when an intense sensory stimulus overwhelms the individual's ability to cope, leading to feelings of intense anxiety, a need to escape, or difficulty communicating. Sensory overload can be triggered by a single event or build up over time due to daily efforts to cope with sensory sensitivities.

Strategies to manage sensory overload should be individualized as per the person's unique sensory profile. These can include:

  • Using calming strategies, such as deep breathing exercises or listening to calming music.
  • Providing a quiet and low-stimulus environment where the individual can retreat from overwhelming situations.
  • Using sensory tools such as noise-cancelling headphones or fidget toys to help manage sensory input.
  • Encouraging the use of verbal or visual cues to indicate the start of sensory overload.

Implementing these accommodations and strategies can significantly improve the quality of life for an individual with ASD, allowing them to navigate their daily activities with minimal discomfort. It is important to work closely with the individual and their support team to ensure that the accommodations and strategies employed are beneficial and effective.

Studies on Sensory Processing in ASD

The connection between sensory processing disorder (SPD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is often a topic of discussion in the scientific community. Various studies have been conducted to understand the overlapping characteristics and unique features of these two conditions.

Comparing ASD, SPD, and Typical Development

Children with ASD and SPD often exhibit similar behavioral patterns, including heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli and difficulties with fine motor skills. However, not all children with sensory processing disorder have autism. Indeed, while over 80% of children with autism also have sensory processing disorder, SPD affects approximately 5-16% of school-aged children in general [3].

In one comparative study, it was found that children with ASD scored higher than those with SPD and typically developing children in the category of Systemizing Quotient, which measures the child's interest in understanding how the internal components of a machine work [3].

Group Systemizing Quotient
ASD High
SPD Moderate
Typically Developing Children Low

Brain Activity Differences in ASD and SPD

Neurological research has also shed some light on the differences between ASD and SPD. A study conducted at the University of California - San Francisco found that children with SPD displayed more disconnection in the white matter tracts dealing with sensory issues than children with ASD. This suggested that SPD might be distinguishable from other neurodevelopmental disorders on a neurological level.

These findings indicate that while ASD and SPD share some common characteristics, they are differentiated by distinct neurological and behavioral patterns. Further research is needed to fully understand the complexities of these conditions and their overlap. The exploration of these differences and similarities will continue to provide invaluable insights into sensory processing disorder and ASD, informing more effective strategies for diagnosis and intervention.

References

[1]: https://www.ivyrehab.com/news/sensory-processing-vs-autism-whats-the-difference/

[2]: https://www.autismspeaks.org/sensory-issues

[3]: https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-sensory-processing-disorder/

steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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