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Exploring the Link Between Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder

Updated: Feb 20

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a condition in which the brain has difficulty receiving and interpreting sensory information from the environment. Individuals with SPD may have trouble processing sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and touch, and this can result in a range of symptoms, such as hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to sensory input, difficulty with coordination and balance, and emotional dysregulation. While SPD is not exclusive to autism, research has shown a strong link between the two conditions. In this article, we will explore the link between autism and SPD and discuss how understanding this relationship can help individuals on the autism spectrum.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

SPD, also known as sensory integration disorder, is a condition that affects the way the brain processes and responds to sensory information from the environment. Individuals with SPD may experience hypersensitivity, meaning they are overly sensitive to certain stimuli, or hyposensitivity, meaning they have a reduced sensitivity to certain stimuli. Some common symptoms of SPD include:

  • Avoidance or seeking of sensory input

  • Difficulty with coordination and balance

  • Difficulty with fine motor skills

  • Emotional dysregulation

  • Difficulty with attention and focus

SPD is a common co-occurring condition with autism, and research has shown that up to 90% of individuals on the autism spectrum have some form of sensory processing difficulty.

Link Between SPD and Autism

While the exact cause of SPD is not yet known, there is a strong link between SPD and autism. In fact, SPD is now recognized as a core feature of autism in the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria. Sensory processing difficulties are often one of the first signs of autism, and they can have a significant impact on an individual's behaviour and quality of life.

Research has shown that individuals with autism have different patterns of brain activity when processing sensory information, which can lead to sensory overload or under-responsiveness. For example, a loud noise that may be tolerable to most people could be extremely distressing for an individual with autism who is hypersensitive to sound. Similarly, a light touch that may be barely noticeable to most people could be uncomfortable or even painful for an individual with autism who is hypersensitive to touch.

Understanding the link between autism and SPD is important because it can help individuals on the autism spectrum and their families better manage sensory processing difficulties. By understanding the specific sensory needs and sensitivities of individuals with autism, it is possible to develop strategies and accommodations to help them navigate their environment more effectively.

Strategies for Managing Sensory Processing Difficulties

There are many strategies that can be helpful for managing sensory processing difficulties in individuals with autism. Some of these strategies include:

1. Sensory Integration Therapy

Sensory integration therapy (SIT) is a therapeutic approach that is designed to help individuals with sensory processing difficulties, including those on the autism spectrum, develop appropriate responses to sensory input through play-based activities. SIT is based on the idea that the brain can change and adapt in response to new experiences and that sensory experiences play a crucial role in shaping brain development.

SIT is typically conducted by an occupational therapist who is specially trained in sensory integration theory and techniques. The therapist will first conduct a comprehensive assessment to identify the specific sensory processing difficulties of the individual and develop a treatment plan tailored to their needs.

During SIT sessions, the therapist will guide the individual through a series of activities that are designed to provide a range of sensory experiences. These activities may include swinging, jumping, bouncing, climbing, and other forms of movement that provide vestibular (movement and balance) input. The therapist may also use tactile activities, such as playing with different textures, or provide deep pressure input through activities like compression vests or weighted blankets.

The goal of SIT is to help individuals with sensory processing difficulties develop adaptive responses to sensory input. This means that they learn to tolerate sensory input that was previously uncomfortable or overwhelming and respond appropriately to sensory input in their environment. For example, an individual who was previously hypersensitive to touch may learn to tolerate touch and engage in activities that involve touch, such as brushing their teeth or hair.

It is important to note that SIT is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and it may not be appropriate for all individuals with sensory processing difficulties. SIT should always be conducted under the guidance of a trained occupational therapist who can tailor the treatment to the individual's specific needs and monitor their progress.

2. Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy (OT) is a form of therapy that focuses on helping individuals develop the skills they need to perform daily activities, or "occupations," such as self-care, work, and play. For individuals with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), occupational therapy can be a valuable tool in helping them learn to regulate their sensory input and respond appropriately to their environment.

OT for SPD typically involves a comprehensive assessment to identify the specific sensory processing difficulties of the individual, as well as their strengths and challenges in other areas. Based on this assessment, the therapist will develop a treatment plan that is tailored to the individual's needs, and may involve a range of activities and interventions designed to address their specific sensory processing difficulties.

Benefits of occupational therapy for individuals with SPD can include:

  • Improved sensory regulation: Occupational therapy can help individuals with SPD develop strategies to regulate their sensory input, including techniques for managing hypersensitivity, hyposensitivity, or a combination of the two.

  • Increased participation in daily activities: By helping individuals with SPD develop the skills they need to regulate their sensory input, occupational therapy can increase their ability to participate in daily activities, including self-care, work, and play.

  • Improved social skills: Occupational therapy can also help individuals with SPD develop the social skills they need to interact with others in a meaningful way, including appropriate communication, sharing, and turn-taking.

3. Sensory-Friendly Environments:

Sensory-friendly environments are designed to minimize sensory overload and provide a comfortable experience for individuals with sensory processing difficulties, including those with autism and SPD. These environments can include a range of modifications, such as reduced lighting and sound levels, soft seating, and sensory-friendly toys and activities. Creating sensory-friendly environments can help individuals with sensory processing difficulties feel more comfortable and relaxed, and can also help reduce stress and anxiety levels. Sensory-friendly environments can be particularly beneficial in public spaces, such as museums, theatres, and restaurants, where individuals with sensory processing difficulties may otherwise feel overwhelmed and unable to fully participate in the experience.

4. Sensory Breaks

Sensory breaks are short, intentional pauses in daily activities that aim to provide individuals with a break from sensory input. Sensory input refers to the information our brains receive through our senses, such as touch, sight, sound, taste, and smell.

Sensory breaks are essential because they help regulate our sensory systems, allowing us to better process and respond to sensory information. When we become overwhelmed by sensory input, we may experience sensory overload, which can result in heightened anxiety, agitation, or emotional outbursts.

During sensory breaks, individuals can engage in calming activities such as deep breathing, yoga, stretching, or using sensory tools like fidgets, weighted blankets, or noise-cancelling headphones. These activities can help regulate the nervous system, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve focus and attention.

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