Sensory Processing Disorder & Autism

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
This lesson discusses the relationship between sensory processing disorder (SPD) and autism spectrum disorders. Within the lesson, SPD is defined, examples of the condition are provided, the relationship between SPD and autism is explored along with some of the controversy surrounding SPD.

At Odds with the World

It seemed that Sam could sit all day and watch his hand as it moved through space. His mother watched her little boy play with his hand and wondered why this kept his attention for such a long time. He loved alone time with his mom, but Sam had difficulty when in a crowded place. The sounds, even when they were relatively quiet, bothered him. He was also having problems learning to walk. His parents realized that some babies are a little slower than others, but this was not the case with Sam. He was strong enough, he just couldn't seem to balance very well. When he started to walk, he would totter, look at the floor, begin to cry, and then fall down. He never took more than one or two steps.

Their pediatrician saw no problem, but after a while, as these issues continued, a friend suggested they have Sam tested using the autism spectrum. They found that Sam was very low on the spectrum, but he did seem to have sensory processing issues. An occupational therapist friend suggested that he might have sensory processing disorder (SPD). His parents then tried to find out all they could about SPD.

Sensing the World

Humans, it would seem, interact with the world through their sense of sight more than any other sense. However, all sensation is important. Whether it is the touch that allows us to better understand an object, balance which allows us to be mobile, a sense of place, or hearing which warns us of danger and enhances the world, all of the senses are important. For the individual who has SPD, though, these senses are confused and can be frightening.

Sensory processing disorder is seen as problems handling information from one of the five senses, the system which provides balance, or the ability to recognize where you are in space. The latter is also called positional relevance and is how a person knows they are in one place versus another. People with SPD receive information from their environment just like everyone else, meaning that their sensing organs are not damaged, but the processing mechanisms within the brain do not work as they should. Thus, the message they receive can cause disorientation, discomfort, and fear.

How SPD Relates to Autism

Many people who have been tested using the autism spectrum are found to have sensory deficits. However, this does not mean that every person on the autism spectrum has these deficits. More importantly, it does not mean that every person who is found to have SPD is also found to be on the autism spectrum. The two can be concurrent, but may also exist independently.

Individuals on the autism spectrum will often have problems with being touched, need external sensations to help them feel safe (such as rocking behavior), or will have an extreme need to be touched to provide security. When an individual has sensory processing issues, they can either be over-sensing (do not want to be touched) or under-sensing (need to be hugged constantly). In fact, both of these issues can be, and often are, present within the same person. A child may need to pound something to feel, yet not like to be touched in general.

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