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What You Need to Know About Autism and Sensory Issues

by Alescia Ford-Lanza MS OTR/L, ATP June 01, 2018

autism sensory issues blog post

In 2014, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported that 1 in 68 school-aged children were diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. A more recent parent survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics puts that number much higher, reporting 1 in 40 children aged 3 and older have autism.

When we look at the frequency of this diagnosis, it’s important to look past the statistics and realize that, with every new diagnosis of a child, there is a family desperately trying to decipher what this new label means, how it will impact daily life, and what they can do to help their child develop, learn, interact, and be successful.

One of these labels that we will be discussing in this article is sensory processing disorder, and how autism can be related to some sensory issues. 

First, let's start with a quick look at autism spectrum disorder. 

 

An Autism Diagnosis

Luckily, there are many professional organizations that aim to educate parents on Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism Speaks provides parents with the most recently revised diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder as published by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Here is an outline of the criteria: 

  • Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by:  
    • Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity,
    • Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction,
    • Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships
    • Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history:
      • Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech
      • Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns or verbal-nonverbal behavior
      • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus
      • Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment 
  • Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period
  • Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.
  • These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) or global developmental delay. 

The reason it is important to read all of these criteria in one view is to better understand some of the “symptoms” or “behaviors” of autism, how some of these symptoms can be connected to sensory issues in autism, and how to help your child make “sense” of it all!

Sensory Processing & Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

If you’re new to a diagnosis of autism, you may just be starting to learn some other medical jargon like sensory integration, sensory processing, and sensory processing disorder. In the therapy world, and especially when there is a diagnosis of autism, these terms are often spoken about without recognizing that the average person has no understanding of how complex our sensory systems actually are!

Did you know that there are actually 8 sensory systems in your body, not just 5?

Our bodies take information in through sensory systems:

  1. Auditory - sound/hearing
  2. Visual - sight
  3. Olfactory - smell
  4. Gustatory - taste
  5. Tactile - touch
  6. Vestibular - movement
  7. Proprioception - input from muscles and joints
  8. Interoception - internal sensors indicating physiological conditions

Sensory Integration is the process your central nervous system goes through when it takes information in from your body’s 8 senses, processes that information, and then responds accordingly.

When one’s central nervous system has difficulty processing any of this sensory information, the body’s responses are atypical and can be observed in motor, language, or behavioral skill difficulties.

Occupational therapists diagnose these atypicalities as Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD.

When we talk about Sensory Processing Dysfunction (SPD), occupational therapists diagnose 3 subtypes of SPD: sensory modulation disorder, sensory-based motor disorder, and sensory discrimination disorder.

Each subtype is characterized by different deficit areas that will advise treatment for your child.

For more information on the differences between these three types of SPD, check out our article on it here.

For more information about sensory integration therapy, check out Harkla’s article here.

Autism and Sensory Issues

The STAR institute estimates, based on their research, that 75% of children with autism have “significant symptoms of sensory processing disorder.” Given that high correlation and comorbidity rate, we need to talk about how sensory processing disorder manifests in people with autism and how to support sensory processing to help them make sense of it all. 

For people with autism, the sensory processing dysfunction can manifest in many different ways, such as:

  • language delays or deficits
  • fine and gross motor delays
  • strong sensory interests
  • sensory aversions
  • an inability to interact with people and objects
  • an inability to stay within an interaction
  • repetitive sensory stereotypies (stimming)
  • and much more

Now consider how many of those symptoms of sensory processing were also mentioned in the diagnostic criteria of the DSM-5. It’s no wonder that a multi-sensory approach to programming for children with autism is effective!

Sensory integration therapy can minimize some of these symptoms of autism by improving sensory processing skills.

Supporting Autistic Sensory Issues and Needs

If you’ve read any of Harkla’s blog articles on Autism and Sensory Processing, you probably have a solid basic understanding of the language occupational therapists frequently speak!

Fortunately, supporting sensory needs for those with autism is the exact same as for those who only have sensory processing disorder. You can read more about our tips and guides to sensory processing disorder here.

You’ll read about:

  • Designing a “Sensory Diet” that works for you and your child
  • Assembling a “Sensory Tool Box” of activities and equipment that can be used at home and on-the-go
  • Some of the top Sensory Toys, Stim-Toys, and Fidgets to improve self-regulation
  • Sensory Integration Therapy
  • Sleep Issues, Autism, and how to support sleep with sensory input like weighted blankets 

Let us at Harkla know how else we can support you, your child with autism, and how to address these sensory issues!

  

Resources

A Sensory Integration Therapy Program on Sensory Problems for Children with Autism." (n.d.): n. pag. Perceptual and Motor Skills. Web. 08 June 2017.

Case-Smith, Jane, and Teresa Bryan. "The Effects of Occupational Therapy With Sensory Integration Emphasis on Preschool-Age Children With Autism." (n.d.): n. pag. American Journal of Occupational Therapy. American Occupational Therapy Association, 01 Sept. 1999. Web. 08 June 2017.

DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria." Autism Speaks. N.p., 28 July 2013. Web. 08 June 2017.

Pfeiffer, Beth A., Kristie Koenig, Moya Kinnealey, Megan Sheppard, and Lorrie Henderson. "Effectiveness of Sensory Integration Interventions in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Pilot Study." (n.d.): n. pag. American Journal of Occupational Therapy. American Occupational Therapy Association, 01 Jan. 2011. Web. 08 June 2017.

"Sensory Processing in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Impact on Functioning." (n.d.): n. pag. Sensory Processing in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Impact on Functioning - ScienceDirect. Web. 08 June 2017.

Alescia Ford-Lanza MS OTR/L, ATP
Alescia Ford-Lanza MS OTR/L, ATP

Alescia Ford-Lanza MS OTR/L, ATP is an Occupational Therapist and Assistive Technology Practitioner with over 15 years of pediatric experience. She specializes in educationally-relevant interventions with a focus on sensory integration and assistive technology supports to learning.

Alescia strives to help children by fostering a love of learning and supports families with her parent-friendly, informative blog posts. Alescia founded Adapt & Learn, LLC on the mission that children of all abilities can play, learn, adapt, and develop with the right therapeutic, family, and educational supports.

You can get more information on Alescia and her practice at www.adaptandlearn.com.


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