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Autism Spectrum Disorder: Sensory Resource Guide

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior in both boys and girls. The signs of ASD often include delays in social interactions, repetitive or self-injurious behaviors, and sensory sensitivities.  Many individuals with ASD also struggle with verbal or non-verbal communication.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD, describes a brain condition characterized by individuals having trouble organizing and responding to information delivered through the senses. For instance, certain noises, sights, textures, tastes, and smells might cause a “sensory overload.”

Signs of Sensory Processing Disorder

  • Stimulation from loud noises or overactive scenery
  • Intolerance to textures or favoring certain textures over others
  • Food aversions
  • Extreme responses to colors
  • Difficulty with fine motor skills
  • Easily distracted or has trouble focusing on a single task
  • Withdrawal from light
  • Dislike for teeth-brushing, nail cutting, hair washing
  • Fearful of crowds
  • Child is is unaware of of being touched or bumped unless done with extreme force
  • Difficulties calming oneself

Articles and Scientific Research on SPD and Autism

  1. In Chantal Sicile-Kira’s article, What is Sensory Processing Disorder and How is is Related to Autism?, Chantal defines SPD and the relationship between SPD and ASD. She also discusses the day-to-day struggles that many people with Sensory Processing Disorder deal with on a regular basis.

  2. A recent study conducted at the University of California San Francisco explains some of the notable differences between SPD and Autism Spectrum Disorder. While there are some overlaps between the two, the study outlines how the brain wiring is different in those with ASD than those with Sensory Processing Disorder.

  3. A research study done in 2009 delves into the social and emotional aspects associated with Sensory Processing Disorder. Researchers found those with SPD experience higher levels of anxiety, depression, and social withdrawal than those without SPD.

  4. A study conducted over the last decade explains the psychological and behavioral differences between those on the autism spectrum and those with Sensory Processing Disorder. The researchers compare and contrast the striking similarities between the two disorders, as well as the features which make them two separate disorders.

Types of SPD

There are three kinds of Sensory Processing Disorders: over-responsive, under-responsive, and seeking/craving.

  1. Over-Responsive SPD:

It’s common for individuals with over-responsive SPD to feel a constant overload of information, which leads to experiencing some senses too intensely. Children with over-responsive SPD tend to become overstimulated and hypersensitive to sensory input, while a typical sensory system would not be affected in such a way. With a sensitive sensory system, a child can often be fearful of, bothered by, or completely avoidant of certain types of sensory experiences such as texture, noise, lighting, taste, and smell. This kind of sensory sensitivity is seen in many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

2. Under Responsive SPD:

In contrast to those with over responsive SPD, under-responsive SPD is when the sensory system doesn’t detect and respond to certain stimuli in the way a sensory system would typically react. Children with under-responsive SPD may often appear withdrawn or uninterested in engaging with others. They tend to not respond to pain or extreme temperatures in the way one might typically respond.

3. Seeking/Craving SPD:

The third kind of SPD is seeking/craving, which occurs when the sensory system drives an individual to constantly seek out sensory stimulation in many different forms. This can look like touching, bouncing, moving, jumping – however they can gain the sensory input they are seeking.

8 Sensory Toys and Activities Recommended by Autism Experts

Each child with Autism Spectrum Disorder and SPD may have unique preferences on toys and activities that accommodate sensory issues. Below are some toys that Action Behavior Centersexperienced team of Board Certified Behavioral Analysts (BCBAs) recommend for children with autism and sensory issues.

For tactile activities:

1. Kinetic sand

2. DIY Slime

3. Water bead

4. Play-Doh

5. Shaving cream

For visual activities:

6. Blowing bubbles

7. Surfloor

8. DIY glitter jar


The Main Neurological Differences Between SPD and ASD

Although there are many features of Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder that go hand-in-hand, it’s important to note the fundamental differences between the two.

  • In a study that evaluated 16 boys with SPD, 15 boys with ASD, and 23 typically developing boys, researchers found that children with SPD, but not autism, displayed impairments in the parts of the brain that link visual, auditory, and tactile sensory processing systems.

  • Both Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder involve deficiencies regarding basic sensory information, but only children with ASD have been shown to lack connections in the brain related to processing facial emotion and memory.

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disorder, while Sensory Processing Disorder affects the nervous system.

  • A recent study at the University of California San Francisco has found that “children with sensory processing disorders have decreased structural brain connections in specific sensory regions different than those in autism, further establishing SPD as a clinically important neurodevelopmental disorder.”

Statistics and National Resources

  • A research study done in 2009 by members of the Sensory Processing Disorder Scientific Work Group indicates that 1 in 6 children experience sensory symptoms.

  • As high as 95% of children on the autism spectrum reportedly experience sensory difficulties according, to a study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders in 2007.

  • Autism is about 4.5 more common in males – data shows that 1 in 42 boys have autism compared to 1 in 189 girls.

  • According to Sensory Processing in Autism: A Review of Neurophysiologic Findings, it is highly common for children on the autism spectrum to display “atypical behavioral responses to sensory information. Over 96% of children with ASD report hyper and hypo-sensitivities in multiple domains.”
  1. STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder

  2. University of California San Francisco – UCSF Autism and SPD Study

  3. National Autism Resources – Sensory Toys

  4. CDC – Autism

  5. CDC – Autism Treatment

  6. WebMD – Sensory Processing Disorder

  7. Sensory Processing in Children With and Without Autism

  8. Sensory Processing and Behavioral Responsiveness

  9. National Institutes of Mental Health: Autism Spectrum Disorder

  10. NIMH: Autism Fact Sheet
  11. SPD Checklist
  12. PubMed: Autism Spectrum Disorder

Many Nonverbal Children with Autism Conquer Severe Language Delays

Speech delay is a core characteristic of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and it’s common for some children with ASD to regress and lose the ability to say certain words or phrases they’d once mastered. Many parents are told that their child will likely remain nonverbal, but an encouraging study published in the journal Pediatrics offers hope that this isn’t always the case.

In fact, the team of researchers in the 2013 study found that the majority of nonverbal autistic children in the study sample went on to overcome their severe language delays. The research included 535 children with ASD who hadn’t acquired the ability to speak in phrases by age four.

The researchers collected and analyzed data from the Simon Complex Collection (SSC), which is a multisite database of biological and phenotypic data on children ages four to 18.

Of the 535 children, 163 were considered to be severely speech delayed, meaning they could only speak in single words (‘no phrase speech’ group). The remaining children were categorized into the ‘phrase speech’ group, and a subsample of this group was considered as the ‘fluent speech’ group since they were given an ADOS (autism diagnostic observation schedule) module 3 or 4.

According to the study results, the majority of the children (70 percent) achieved phrase speech by 8 years of age, and nearly half of the study sample (47 percent) attained fluent speech. These encouraging findings provide hope that many children who are nonverbal at 4 years old can overcome their severe language delays.

Breaking down these findings further, the researchers concluded that the biggest predictors of successfully attaining phrase/fluent speech were nonverbal cognition and showing an interest in social engagement. Repetitive and sensory behaviors, on the other hand, didn’t predict whether a child would go on to attain speech.

“These findings offer hope to parents that their language-delayed child will go on to develop speech in elementary school, or even as teenagers,” Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer, Geraldine Dawson, said in an article. “By highlighting important predictors of language acquisition – especially the role of nonverbal cognitive and social skills – this also suggests that targeting these areas in early intervention will help to promote language.”

Early intervention with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a scientifically-validated method that helps children on the spectrum work through areas of severe developmental delay, like language and nonverbal communication.

Although the initial news of an ASD diagnosis can leave parents feeling overwhelmed or disheartened, this research serves as solid evidence that many children with autism have the ability to progress past their developmental delays to reach their highest potentials.