ASD Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a term used to describe the challenges children (and adults) have when their brains are not interpreting the sensory messages they receive from their body and the environment effectively.  Their brains might find some sensory inputs overwhelming.  Or they might not notice sensory inputs as quickly as others.  You can learn more about Sensory Processing Disorder by reading our article ‘What is SPD?’ here.  On this page we are going to take a closer look at ASD and sensory processing challenges.

Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Autism is a developmental disability which affects how a person communicates with others and experiences the world around them.  Children or adults with autism will have difficulties with social communication and interactions.  They will also have some form of restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities or interests.  Responses to sensory information were included in the 2013 update of the DMS-5, a manual used by clinicians to make an autism diagnosis.

Whilst it had been known prior to this that ASD and sensory processing challenges often occurred together, this is the first time it had been formally recognised.  The manual states that the patterns of behaviours, activities or interests may be due to ‘Hyper- or hypo reactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g., apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement).’  This means that a child or adult with autistic spectrum disorder is likely to process sensory information in the environment differently to others.

How frequently do ASD and sensory processing challenges occur?

In one survey* of adults with autism, 83% of respondents said that they had some challenges with sensory processing.  In the same survey respondents also listed sensory processing challenges as contributing to their increased levels of stress.  The percent of children with ASD and sensory processing issues has been reported to be between 69% to 95% depending on the study**.  It also occurs frequently enough for it to be included as part of the diagnostic criteria in the DSM-5 update in 2013.

What might the sensory processing challenges in autism feel like?

One description I found very useful in thinking about what it might feel like for a person with ASD who experiences sensory processing challenges is from Anita Lesko.  She stated that:

‘Living with Asperger’s is like living with Dolby Surround sound, wearing 3-D glasses like those used in movie theatres and having your sense of smell and touch jacked up to the max’ Anita Lesko*

Difficulties with sensory processing can affect every part of a child or adult’s life.  Close your eyes for a minute and just think about all of the sensory input you are experiencing.

Are there sounds or smells? Can you feel what you are sitting on? Does your body know whether you are sitting up or lying down?

What about micro sensations? How do  your clothes feel against your skin? What about your watch or jewellery? Can you sense the seams of your socks or tights? How does the faint tick of a clock sound, or the flicker of a light affect you?

You probably have never noticed these micro sensations before. This is because your brain filters them out. For someone with Autistic Spectrum Disorder / Condition though, these micro sensations are felt with greater intensity.  This can often lead to distraction or avoidance.  Over time, if these sensations become too much, it can also lead to a meltdown or shut down.

These videos give a nice example of the sheer amount of sensory inputs in our environment every day and how someone with ASD and sensory processing challenges might experience the world.

Is there always a pattern of sensory sensitivity in autism?

Interestingly, despite there being a lot of attention on sensory sensitivity in autism, the literature suggests that there is no clear pattern of responses to sensory information.  Different studies have given different results but most find that there is a mixed sensory profile of children and adults with Autism.

This means that whilst some brains are sensitive, others could be slower to respond to sensory inputs and others might seek out more sensory inputs.  One common finding in all studies is auditory sensitivity, so sensitivity to sounds. I see this clinically too.  Overall, however, there is no specific pattern of responses and every child or adult with autism will have their own unique sensory profile and need their own individualised supports.

What might ASD and sensory processing challenges look like functionally day to day?

On a typical day, as the videos demonstrate, there are so many different sensory inputs that our brains need to process and respond to.  The world is full of noises, so, if you’re sensitive to noise then sirens, clocks ticking, loud vehicles, dogs barking, music class, playground noises, vacuum cleaners and hand dryers might be an issue.  It is also full of things to look at and smell, which can prove very distracting if you are more sensitive to visual inputs or smells.

Our touch sense is constantly working.  Difficulties might occur with clothing fabrics, shoes and socks, haircuts, hair brushing or washing, teeth brushing, messy play and food textures for those who are sensitive to touch.  If processing is slower it will take longer to respond to messages from the touch system.

Those who are slower to process proprioceptive sensory inputs have poor awareness of where their body is and poor coordination. We discuss this further here.  Sometimes movement is difficult.  This could mean seeking out more movement by constantly being on the go and fidgeting.  There could also be sensitivity to movement, which often results in avoidance of moving surfaces, swings and other playground equipment.  Our post on the vestibular system provides more information.  Sensory inputs will change depending on the environment and often at home the environment is more controlled so it can be easier to manage.

How can I help support sensory processing difficulties in ASD?

The good news is that there are numerous sensory strategies that can be used and environmental adjustments that can be made.  The challenge is that as every child or adult with autism has a different sensory profile, there is no hard and fast one size fits all solution.  Each person with sensory challenges will require their own individualised set of supports.  An occupational therapist is typically the best professional to provide you with support in this area.  The following resources also provide numerous ideas and strategies to try.

Online SPD courses

GriffinOT’s online course – ‘Sensory Processing: What’s the Fuss?’, explores the sensory systems, sensory responses, and strategies to help in further depth.  In September 2018 we will be adding a specific module on ASD and sensory processing.  You can access the course via our course page here.

Parent-friendly books on Autism and SPD

  • For a very simple introduction and lists of ideas more specific to Sensory Processing & Autism: Building Bridges through Sensory Integration by Yack, Aquilla & Sutton (2015)
  • For a good introduction to Sensory Processing Disorder: The Everything Parent’s Guide to Sensory Processing Disorder by Terri Mauro (2014)
  • Another good introduction to Sensory Processing Disorder written by a parent: The Out of Sync Child by Carol Kranowitz (2005)
  • Although not specifically written on sensory processing, this book gives a lot of suggestions related to supporting sensory issues.  It also provides a very honest and in my mind helpful account of what is like living with a child who has autism:  Coming Home to Autism: A Room-by-Room Approach to Supporting Your Child at Home after ASD Diagnosis by Tara Leniston & Rhian Grounds (2018)
  • For extra strategies: Been There. Done That. Try This! By Atwood, Evans, & Lesko (2014)
  • For further information, however, if you’re completely new to ASD and sensory processing I would recommend you read an introductory book on the subject first as this book assumes some prior knowledge: Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism and Asperger’s by Olga Bogdashina (2003)

Teacher-friendly books on ASD and sensory processing disorder

The above books would be suitable for teachers. In addition, these books also provide extra information:

  • Sensory Processing Challenges – Effective Clinical Work with Kids and Teens by Lindsey Biel (2014)
  • A Buffet of Sensory Interventions by Susanne Culp (2011)

Page references

* Atwood, T., Evans, C., & Lesko, A. (2014). Been There. Done That. Try This! Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

** Hazen, E. et al (2014) Sensory Symptoms in Autism Spectrum Disorders Harvard Review of Psychiatry Volume 22  Number 2  March/April 2014

You may also be interested in:

Sensory Autism Training

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