• Understanding Autism from the Inside

    “Academics came easily to me. The rest of life—not so much.”
  • This post may contain affiliate links and we may earn compensation when you click on the links at no additional cost to you.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) in Autism

sensory processing disorderSensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is extremely common in those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders. In fact, those with Autism commonly struggle with all kinds of sensory processing issues. SPD can be diagnosed without having an Autism Spectrum Disorder; however, those with Autism almost always struggle with SPD.

What Is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), like Autism, is a neurological disorder. The disorder causes difficulties with processing information from the five senses: vision, auditory (sound), tactile (touch), olfaction (smell), and taste. The person’s sense of movement (vestibular system), and/or the positional sense(proprioception) is also often effected. SPD is often diagnosed in children, and treated with sensory integration therapy. Adults, however, also experience SPD, and display a characteristic set of symptoms. Those with SPD can be affected in one area of the senses such as sight, or sound, or may be affected in many areas.

Does Everyone with Sensory Processing Disorder Have Autism?

No, Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a separate disorder. One may be diagnosed with SPD but show no signs of an Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, autistic children and adults almost always struggle with some type of sensory processing issues. In fact, these sensitivities have now been added to the new diagnostic criteria for identifying Autism Spectrum Disorders.

How Do Sensory Issues Affect Those with Autism?

Having difficulty with sensory processing is like being born without a filter. For example, it is difficult for the autistic person to filter out background noises that the “normal” person does not even register consciously. The sound of the cars honking outside, water dripping from the faucet, the fluorescent lights buzzing and pulsing, and the air conditioning unit humming are all being received into the brain at the same time and with the same intensity as the person who is speaking to him or her. It makes social situations difficult because it is hard to concentrate or filter-out the unimportant stimuli—and that is just one example of the difficulty with auditory processing while trying to listen to someone speaking. Someone who experiences more than just auditory processing issues is also attempting to filter through sights, smells, touch, etc. All these different sensory stimuli are being processed in the brain, however, differently, than the normal person. Too much stimuli coming in at any one time can cause sensory overload leading to meltdowns, or complete shutdowns of the sensory system.

Children and Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders often display signs of Sensory Processing Disorder. These sensory processing issues can cause multiple problems for the autistic person. The brain is not processing external sensory stimuli in the same way that the “normal” person is processing the stimuli. Many times too much stimulus, unfiltered, and processed differently, can be overwhelming. These sensitivities can affect the autistic person’s ability to tolerate social situations. Trying to process and juggle the different sights and sounds while filtering many different people’s voices can quickly become overwhelming.

Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.