The research to better understand conditions like autism spectrum disorder and sensory processing disorder (SPD), or sensory overload, is getting better by the day, but there’s still a lot to learn. For example, many people still aren’t aware of the correlation between these two conditions and what they entail. In this guide, we’ll cover all the basics so that you have a better understanding of these conditions and their therapeutic options.
What is Autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a development disorder that takes on several forms. It is what is known as a “spectrum” disorder because it can appear in different people with different symptoms, levels of severity, developmental concerns, and so forth. Autism can cause children to learn, react, and attend to details differently than children without this condition, or those who are neurotypical.
Autism causes a wide range of social and communication challenges for those afflicted. With proper interventions (and especially early intervention), such as ABA therapy, a lot of the issues can be overcome or made less severe. There have been several methods and therapies studied for assisting those with this condition, and because there is still so much to learn, a lot of research is ongoing.
One thing we do know is that autism is typically linked to sensory processing disorder, which we’ll discuss next.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory processing refers to the way that a person’s brain perceives sensory input, as well as how the person responds to that information. Someone who struggles with sensory processing or who is diagnosed with SPD will typically have an impairment in the way that their brain processes these elements.
When the brain cannot properly process the senses and the world around it, regulating behavior and motor functions like coordination and balance can become difficult. There are several components of sensory processing, and even one of them being off can lead to a lot of developmental delays and the need for therapeutic intervention. There are eight total components of sensory processing to be aware of, as you’ll see in the list below.
8 Components of Sensory Processing
The components of sensory processing difficulties that you need to be aware of include:
- Vestibular Function- how the inner ear and brain work to control balance, eye movement, and body awareness
- Proprioception- the sense of awareness of one’s body movements or positioning
- Enteroception- the awareness of what’s happening within one’s own body
Some of these come with a preoccupation or aversion to certain things (loud noises, certain tastes or textures, etc.) The way that the brain processes these things has somehow been interrupted, and it results in several different potential issues.
When it comes to the types of sensory issues that exist, two main conditions typically occur, both at either end of the extreme. Let’s look at those two sensory issues now.
Two Types of Sensory Issues
Although several different issues and challenges may present themselves with sensory processing disorder and autism, they can typically be divided into two main groups.
This refers to children who are easily stimulated by any sensory elements or sensory stimuli. These children may have a low tolerance for pain or the aforementioned loud noises. It could also include light sensitivity, coordination issues, and so forth. The hypersensitivity could impact appetite and ability to eat certain foods, so this could create a situation where you have a finicky eater on your hands, too. It’s not uncommon for there to be food issues with these two conditions, and again they all come in different shapes and sizes.
On the other end of things, and in a potentially more dangerous light, is hyposensitivity. This condition causes children not to have enough sensory stimulation. This could mean they have a higher pain tolerance, or they bump into objects and walls because it doesn’t occur to them not to. They may also have a need to be constantly touching or mouthing items, although it’s unsure exactly how that’s related to the lack of sensitivity.
Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder
More than 80% of all children with autism spectrum disorder also have sensory processing disorder. According to the DSM-5, SPD is a behavior specifically associated with ASD, but most of the children with SPD do not have autism. The other variable is that sensory processing disorder usually affects touch more than anything, while those who have autism will struggle more with sound processing.
It’s still being learned as to how these two are related specifically, but both conditions can cause children to learn and react to things differently, as well as to interact differently with the world around them. Depending on the type of sensitivity that they struggle with, it could compound with the addition of an ASD diagnosis, but the therapeutic approaches are typically similar in nature.
Common Sensory Sensitivities of Someone with SPD and Autism
People with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often experience a range of sensory sensitivities. These can vary greatly from one individual to another, but some common sensitivities include:
Sensitivity to Touch: This could manifest as discomfort or distress when touched, or a dislike for certain textures in clothing, food, or objects.
Sensitivity to Sound: Certain sounds may be overwhelming or distressing. This could include loud noises, such as sirens or fireworks, or even everyday sounds, like the humming of a refrigerator or the ticking of a clock.
Sensitivity to Light: Bright lights or certain types of artificial light can be uncomfortable or even painful. Some individuals may also find flashing or flickering lights distressing.
Sensitivity to Smell: Certain smells that most people find unremarkable or mildly annoying can be unbearable or nauseating to someone with SPD or ASD.
Sensitivity to Taste or Textures of Food: Certain tastes or food textures may be rejected. This could lead to a very restricted diet, with only a few accepted foods.
Sensitivity to Movement: This could include discomfort or disorientation during activities that involve movement, such as swinging, spinning, or being upside down. On the other hand, some individuals may seek out intense movement experiences.
Sensitivity to Temperature: Individuals may be overly sensitive to minor changes in temperature, or find certain temperatures intolerable that others would find comfortable.
Sensitivity to Visual Input: Certain visual stimuli, such as busy patterns or rapidly changing images, could be overwhelming or cause discomfort.
Remember, not every person with SPD or ASD will experience all these sensitivities, and the degree of sensitivity can vary widely from one individual to another. Understanding and respecting these sensitivities is an important step in supporting individuals with SPD and ASD.
Therapy for ASD and SPD
As mentioned, there have been plenty of therapies and approaches that have been studied for autism and sensory processing disorder. Currently, ASD is best treated using ABA therapy, or Applied Behavioral Analysis. Essentially, it uses a style of programming to help kids learn by offering them a reward (often related to their stimming or sensory issues) in exchange for acquiring skills or learning various things.
Occupational therapy is used for sensory processing disorders, including things like teaching children coordination and how to handle other sensitivity issues through exposure and practice over time. An occupational therapist will focus on the specific sensitivities that a child has and attempt to work on improving the challenges that they face. Sensory integration is proving quite effective as a solution, but since the debate on this disorder is still out, there is a lot left to learn. As of now, we at least know that occupational therapy is helping children with sensory issues, and in the future, that’s only likely to get better.
Sensory Integration Therapy
Sensory Integration Therapy is a type of therapy that is often used to help individuals with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and autism spectrum disorder. This therapeutic approach focuses on helping these individuals manage their sensory challenges and improve their ability to function in daily life. It involves specific sensory activities that are tailored to the individual's needs, such as swinging, spinning, and deep pressure, which can help regulate their sensory system. The goal is to challenge the individual in a structured, rhythmic way to help their brain adapt and process sensory information more efficiently. Over time, Sensory Integration Therapy can lead to improved motor skills, enhanced learning abilities, better behavior, and greater participation in daily activities. It's important to note that this therapy should be administered by a trained occupational therapist or other healthcare professional who understands the unique sensory needs of individuals with SPD and autism.
To learn more about how these issues can be resolved with ABA and occupational therapy, as well as what the future holds and how you can help your child thrive, visit us at https://hiddentalentsaba.com/.