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Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism

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When we see a child react powerfully to a loud noise, a strong smell, or flashing lights, we immediately assume they may be on the Autism spectrum. 

That might be inaccurate. 

They may have a sensory processing disorder or SPD. This means sensory information, whether sight, sound, taste, smell, or touch, is processed incorrectly when it enters the nervous system, producing inaccurate reactions, perceptions, or recognitions.

Sensory processing disorder and Autism tend to overlap. People with Autism regularly struggle to process sensory information.  

Approximately 90% of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have sensory sensitivity. However, 16% of the general population has a sensory processing disorder.   

Yet this is where the confusion lies. Not all people, including children on the spectrum, have SPD. Conversely, a child with SPD does not necessarily have Autism. 

At Heartlinks, we have trained therapists who can help diagnose and treat both Autism and SPD. 

Using ABA therapy (Applied Behavioral Therapy), we can help your child develop desired behaviors around their specific sensory triggers while minimizing less desirable ones through positive reinforcement. 

Now’s the time to help your child learn about their sensory sensitivities and work together to learn how they can lead a fulfilling life. 

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory processing involves how a person’s brain interprets sensory information and how they react to it.

 A person with difficulty processing sensory information used to regulate motor function or human performance, including walking, coordination, or balance, has a sensory processing disorder or SPD. Someone with SPD might also negatively react to light, sound, texture, or smells.  

Girl being overwhelmed by sensory overload

There are eight components to a human’s sensory processing system. 

First are the five senses: taste, smell, touch, hearing, and sight. 

There are two lesser-known senses called the ‘sixth and seventh senses.’

The sixth sense is proprioception. This is the sense of your own body’s position or movement. For example, a child will understand if they raise their hand in the air. 

The vestibular system, or seventh sense, is a combination of the inner ear and the brain working together. They operate the movement of the eyes, the body’s ability to balance, and our awareness of objects around us.

The final element of a human’s sensory system is interoception. That’s being aware of what is happening within your own body. An example is when a person can feel the temperature difference when an object is placed against their skin or understand the difference between hunger and thirst. 

Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder

The symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder usually affect each individual differently. For example, it may impact one sense or many different ones at a time. 

The responses of someone with SPD can also vary significantly from being over to under-responsive to specific sensory stimuli.

For example, the sound of an ambulance might make a child vomit, while a firecracker might not even cause a person to flinch. 

Typical sensory overload symptoms include the following:

  • Irritability 
  • Anxiety
  • Throwing temper tantrums
  • Jumpiness
  • Being startled by sudden noises
  • Limited motor development because of poor coordination or body awareness
  • Physical or emotional reactions in an overstimulating environment (i.e., screaming when the music gets too loud)
  • Restricted interactions with other people due to sensitivities
  • Being bothered by bright lights
  • Rigidity
  • Easily distracted
  • Difficulty following instructions
  • Slow processing abilities

What’s the Difference Between Hyposensitivity and Hypersensitivity in SPD?

A hypersensitive child is exceptionally reactive to certain types of sensory stimulation. Usually, it’s because the stimuli are too overwhelming.

For example, the sunlight could be too bright, the sound of traffic could be too much, or the smells in a grocery store could be intolerable.

On the other end is hyposensitivity, where children are under-sensitive to stimulation. They actively seek out more stimulation. These sensory-seeking kids constantly want to touch things to feel their texture, bumping into objects or jumping from heights. 

The Link Between Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism

2 people holding the Autism symbol in their hands

Both SPD and ASD are neurological conditions that affect the way adults and children observe and process sensory information. 

The pair of these conditions do share overlapping symptoms, particularly in the area of sensory processing. Together they both exhibit heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli, a difficulty distinguishing between sensory inputs and sensory-seeking behaviors.

Despite their similarities, there are several critical differences between ASD and SPD.

The most significant difference can be found in the core symptoms. SPD affects sensory processing. 

Yet a child with ASD has deficits in social interaction, communication, and exhibiting feelings or emotions. They may exhibit highly repetitive behaviors, such as stimming (hand flapping) or aggressive behaviors.

Next Steps for Diagnosis and Treatment

Yes, Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder are neurological disorders that are both distinct yet exhibit some overlap. Both can negatively affect your child’s ability to process and interpret sensory information, communicate with others, and handle their daily lives. 

Despite their similarities, their core symptoms are different, requiring a proper diagnosis and therapy plan

With locations across the United States, Heartlinks can help with a proper diagnosis and develop a custom plan for your child.

Contact us today for more information on how we can help your child.

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