Differentiating Sensory Processing Disorder vs. Autism

April 29, 2024

Unraveling sensory processing disorder vs. autism: Understand the differences and find clarity on symptoms and treatment options.

Understanding Sensory Processing

In order to differentiate sensory processing disorder (SPD) from autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it's important to have a clear understanding of sensory processing and its components. Sensory processing refers to how the brain receives and interprets sensory information from the environment. It involves various components, each playing a role in our perception and response to sensory stimuli.

Components of Sensory Processing

Sensory processing involves eight components, including the traditional five senses: taste, smell, hearing, seeing, and touch. In addition to these, there are three other components that contribute to sensory processing. These are:

  1. Vestibular Function: This component relates to our sense of balance and movement. It helps us understand our body's position in space and coordinate movements.
  2. Proprioception: Also known as the "sixth sense," proprioception refers to our body's awareness of its position and movement. It involves receptors in our muscles and joints, providing feedback about body position and allowing for coordinated movement.

Sensory Processing Challenges

Individuals with sensory processing challenges may experience difficulties in one or more components of sensory processing. These challenges can manifest in various ways. Some individuals may be hypersensitive, experiencing heightened responses to sensory stimuli. For example, they may be extremely sensitive to loud noises, bright lights, or certain textures. On the other hand, some individuals may be hyposensitive, showing reduced responses to sensory input. They may seek out intense sensory experiences or have a high tolerance for pain.

Understanding the components of sensory processing and the challenges associated with them is crucial in differentiating sensory processing disorder from autism spectrum disorder. While both conditions involve sensory processing difficulties, they have distinct characteristics and symptoms that set them apart.

By gaining a deeper understanding of sensory processing, its components, and the challenges individuals may face, we can better comprehend the complexities of sensory processing disorder and autism spectrum disorder. This knowledge serves as a foundation for differentiating these two conditions and developing appropriate interventions and support strategies for individuals who may be affected by them.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) Explained

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition that affects the way individuals receive and respond to sensory information from their environment. It is important to understand the prevalence of SPD and its relationship with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Prevalence of SPD

SPD is estimated to affect approximately 5-16% of school-aged children in general. Many children with SPD may exhibit extreme sensitivity to certain sensory stimuli and may have difficulties with fine motor skills.

Comorbidity with ASD

Over 80% of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) also have sensory processing disorder (SPD). It is important to note that while there is a high comorbidity between these two conditions, most children with SPD do not have ASD.

Research has indicated that over 96% of children with ASD report hyper- and hypo-sensitivities in multiple domains, indicating atypical behavioral responses to sensory information. Sensory hyper- and hypo-responsiveness are more prevalent in individuals with ASD compared to other developmental disabilities.

Sensory processing concerns have been a significant feature of ASD clinical descriptions since the original reports by Asperger and Kanner. The coexistence of SPD and ASD highlights the overlap in sensory challenges experienced by individuals with these conditions.

Understanding the prevalence of SPD and its comorbidity with ASD is essential when differentiating between these two conditions. Identifying and addressing sensory processing difficulties can significantly contribute to the overall well-being and quality of life of individuals with SPD and ASD.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Overview

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by challenges in social interaction, communication, and restricted or repetitive behaviors. Understanding the prevalence and diagnostic criteria of ASD is essential for distinguishing it from Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

Prevalence of ASD

ASD is estimated to affect 1 in 44 children in the United States, according to recent data from the American Psychiatric Association. It is important to note that ASD is more commonly diagnosed in boys, with boys being approximately four times more likely to receive an ASD diagnosis compared to girls.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that in 2020, an estimated 1 in 36 eight-year-old children received an ASD diagnosis. These statistics highlight the significant impact of ASD on individuals and their families.

Diagnostic Criteria

The diagnostic criteria for ASD are established by the American Psychiatric Association. These criteria require the presence of persistent deficits in social communication and interaction across multiple contexts. Additionally, individuals with ASD often exhibit restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.

To receive an ASD diagnosis, symptoms must be present in the early developmental period and significantly impact daily functioning. The severity of symptoms can vary widely, leading to the classification of ASD as a spectrum disorder.

It is important to note that while sensory processing challenges can be a component of autism, ASD encompasses a broader range of symptoms that extend beyond sensory issues. ASD includes difficulties in communication, social interaction, and behavior, whereas SPD focuses specifically on sensory-related challenges.

Understanding the prevalence and diagnostic criteria of ASD is crucial for differentiating it from SPD. By recognizing the distinct characteristics of ASD, individuals can seek appropriate evaluations, interventions, and support to promote optimal development and quality of life for those affected by this complex disorder.

Differentiating Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Understanding the distinctions between Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is crucial for accurate diagnosis and effective intervention. While there can be overlapping features between the two, it's important to recognize the unique symptoms and behaviors associated with each.

Symptoms and Behaviors

Sensory Processing Disorder primarily involves difficulties in processing and responding to sensory information from the environment. These challenges can affect one or multiple senses, leading to hypersensitivity (overresponsiveness) or hyposensitivity (underresponsiveness) to sensory stimuli. Children and adults with SPD may exhibit behaviors such as:

  • Overresponsiveness to sounds, lights, textures, or smells
  • Avoidance of certain sensory experiences or environments
  • Seeking intense sensory input
  • Difficulty with self-regulation and emotional responses

On the other hand, Autism Spectrum Disorder encompasses a broader range of symptoms that extend beyond sensory issues. Individuals with ASD may exhibit challenges in social interaction, communication, and repetitive or restricted behaviors. While sensory processing difficulties can be a component of autism, other hallmark symptoms and behaviors of ASD include:

  • Impaired social interactions and difficulty understanding social cues
  • Delayed or atypical language development
  • Repetitive or stereotypical behaviors and interests
  • Resistance to changes in routines

Overlapping Features

Due to the overlap in how the brain processes information, there can be similarities in the behaviors observed in individuals with SPD and ASD. Sensory processing challenges can be present without autism, with sensory processing difficulties observed in individuals with other neurodevelopmental or psychiatric conditions.

The presence of sensory difficulties in both SPD and ASD can lead to misdiagnosis or confusion. However, it's important to note that autism encompasses a broader scope of behavioral, communication, and social difficulties compared to SPD. ASD is recognized as a spectrum disorder with a diverse range of manifestations, while SPD remains specific to sensory-related challenges.

To ensure an accurate diagnosis, a comprehensive evaluation conducted by a qualified healthcare professional is crucial. This evaluation may involve assessments by occupational therapists, psychologists, or other specialists with expertise in sensory processing and autism. By carefully considering the specific symptoms and behaviors exhibited, a proper differentiation between SPD and ASD can be made, leading to appropriate interventions and support for individuals with sensory processing challenges.

Treatment Approaches

When it comes to addressing sensory processing challenges in individuals with sensory processing disorder (SPD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), there are various treatment approaches available. Two common approaches are sensory integration therapy and applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy.

Sensory Integration Therapy

Sensory integration therapy is a treatment approach that aims to address sensory processing issues by providing structured, therapeutic activities tailored to an individual's specific needs. This therapy is based on the work of A. Jean Ayres, who identified the traditional five senses and added two "internal" senses: body awareness (proprioception) and movement (vestibular). Another researcher, Lucy Jane Miller, later added an eighth sense called interoception.

Sensory integration therapy typically takes place in a sensory gym, which is equipped with tools like swings, ball pits, and weighted vests. The therapy involves observing the child, talking to caregivers, and creating a treatment plan tailored to the individual's needs. It aims to balance sensory input, address issues related to sensory defensiveness and sensory cravings, and promote adaptive behaviors.

This therapy may include brushing techniques, such as the "Wilbarger protocol," which uses a soft brush and joint compressions to provide deep pressure. Sensory integration therapy can also involve specialized equipment, listening programs, and other therapeutic approaches to help individuals effectively process sensory information.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy has proven to be valuable in addressing sensory processing challenges in individuals with autism and SPD. ABA therapy utilizes evidence-based techniques to address specific difficulties, promote adaptive behaviors, and help individuals learn coping strategies to manage overwhelming stimuli and reduce challenging behaviors like tantrums.

ABA therapy focuses on breaking down complex skills into smaller, manageable steps, providing clear and consistent instructions, and using positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors. This therapy may involve structured activities and social interactions to improve communication, social skills, and sensory regulation.

The goal of ABA therapy is to enhance an individual's daily functioning and quality of life by targeting specific behaviors and teaching more appropriate alternatives. It can be highly beneficial in helping individuals with sensory processing challenges develop effective strategies to navigate sensory stimuli and improve their overall well-being.

By utilizing these treatment approaches, individuals with sensory processing challenges can receive the support they need to manage their symptoms, improve their daily functioning, and thrive in their environments. It's important to work closely with professionals to determine the most appropriate approach based on an individual's unique needs and goals.

Impact on Daily Life

Individuals with sensory processing difficulties, whether due to sensory processing disorder (SPD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), may face challenges in their daily activities. These challenges can significantly impact their overall functioning and well-being. Understanding these difficulties is crucial in order to provide appropriate support and accommodations.

Challenges in Daily Activities

Children and adults with sensory processing difficulties may experience challenges in various aspects of their daily lives. The specific difficulties can vary depending on the individual and their sensory profile. Some common challenges include:

  • Sensory Overload: Individuals may become overwhelmed by sensory stimuli in their environment, such as loud noises, bright lights, or crowded places. This can lead to anxiety, distress, and difficulty focusing or participating in daily activities.
  • Sensory Seeking or Avoidance Behaviors: Some individuals may engage in repetitive behaviors or seek sensory input, such as rocking, spinning, or flapping their hands, to self-regulate and modulate their sensory experiences [5]. On the other hand, others may avoid certain sensory stimuli, such as certain textures, tastes, or sounds, which can limit their participation in everyday activities.
  • Difficulties with Transitions: Changes in routine or transitioning between activities can be challenging for individuals with sensory processing difficulties. They may require additional time and support to adjust to new environments or activities.
  • Fine Motor Skill Deficiencies: Some individuals with sensory processing difficulties may experience difficulties with fine motor skills, such as handwriting, buttoning clothes, or tying shoelaces. These challenges can impact their ability to engage in activities requiring precise hand-eye coordination.

Managing Sensory Processing Issues

Managing sensory processing issues involves implementing strategies and accommodations to support individuals in their daily lives. Here are some approaches that can be helpful:

  • Sensory-Friendly Environments: Creating a sensory-friendly environment can involve minimizing sensory triggers, providing a quiet and calm space, and using appropriate lighting and sound levels. This can help individuals feel more comfortable and reduce sensory overload.
  • Structured Routines: Establishing structured routines and providing visual schedules can help individuals with sensory processing difficulties navigate their daily activities more smoothly. Predictability and consistency can provide a sense of security.
  • Sensory Diet: A sensory diet refers to a personalized plan that incorporates sensory activities to meet an individual's sensory needs. This can include activities that provide deep pressure, tactile input, or movement, depending on the individual's sensory profile and preferences.
  • Occupational Therapy: Occupational therapy is often recommended for individuals with sensory processing difficulties. Occupational therapists can provide strategies and interventions to address sensory challenges and improve functional abilities.

By understanding the impact of sensory processing difficulties on daily life and implementing appropriate strategies, individuals with sensory processing disorder or autism can enhance their overall well-being and participation in daily activities. It is essential to provide support, accommodations, and a supportive environment to help these individuals thrive.


Similar articles

Is Yellow Bus ABA Center a Good Fit For You?

Do you have any questions?

Get Started Now