Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) takes place when the brain has difficulty receiving and appropriately responding to stimuli or information through the senses. Many with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience SPD, but not all. These sensory struggles can result in the demonstration of confusing behaviors, including unexpected reactions like outbursts or covering the ears, to name a few, according to the Child Mind Institute. Additionally, conditions other than ASD can also present with SPD.
As a parent, you may have noticed some of the common signs of sensory processing disorder in your child, such as oversensitivity to certain textures or sounds. However, it is essential to remember that sensory processing disorder is also a spectrum, and each child’s experience with it can vary greatly. Some with SPD only struggle with one or two senses, while others may have difficulties across multiple sensory systems.
This blog by ABA Centers of America explores sensory processing disorders in children and teenagers with autism, offering insight and practical strategies for parents to help their neurodivergent loved ones navigate daily life with this, at times, debilitating experience. From defining SPD and its connection to autism to describing some essential diagnostic criteria, this blog aims to demystify this commonly misunderstood disorder.
So, keep reading to learn more about SPDs and how you can support your child to achieve brighter outcomes if they are managing this experience.
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Defining Sensory Processing Disorder
Sensory processing disorder occurs when an individual’s brain has difficulty receiving, interpreting, and responding to sensory stimuli, causing an atypical response or lack of response altogether. Children with SPD may either be hypersensitive (over-sensitive) or hyposensitive (under-sensitive) to sensory input, leading to difficulties in regulating their responses and behaviors. Furthermore, some children may show signs of both hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity, making their sensory profile even more complex to understand.
For instance, a child with SPD may not recognize the destructive force of impact on their body when they drop from a dangerous height or feel the pain of biting their own hands. In other cases, they may scream if they get wet or hear a siren.
The lack of recognition in the DSM-5 has led to a significant gap in comprehending and addressing SPDs, particularly for parents of children with autism and some providers. However, this does not mean that SPD is any less real or impactful for these children and their families.
In fact, research shows that sensory difficulties can significantly impact a child’s life, from their ability to participate in routine obligations to disrupting the way they engage with peers, even affecting their emotional well-being at times.
Common Traits of Sensory Processing Disorder in Children with ASD
While SPD can occur independently, it is prominent among those on the autism spectrum. In fact, estimates have shown that up to 93% of individuals with autism also experience sensory processing symptoms, according to the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Some common traits of SPD in children with autism include:
- Over or under sensitivity to touch, taste, sound, sight, or smell
- Difficulty with transitions and changes in routine
- Sensory-seeking behaviors (e.g., constantly touching objects or seeking intense sensory experiences)
- Avoidance of certain textures, sounds, or environments
- Difficulty with fine motor skills
- Trouble with social interactions and regulation of emotions
- Impulsivity and hyperactivity
- Difficulty with attention and focus
- Trouble with sleep patterns and regulation
7 Tips for Navigating Sensory Processing Disorder for Parents of ASD Children
As a caregiver of a neurodivergent child, understanding the basics of SPD can help you better support your child and advocate for their distinct needs. Some important things to keep in mind include:
- Accept that every child with SPD is unique. While there are common traits and behaviors associated with SPD, each child experiences it differently. It’s essential to observe your child and understand their specific needs and
- Educate yourself and others about SPD: Learn more about SPD and share this knowledge with family members, teachers, and caregivers who interact with your child. Understanding SPD can help ensure they are safe and secure wherever they are.
- Recognize that sensory processing difficulties may fluctuate tremendously over time, even daily. Factors such as fatigue, age, stress, or environment can also influence processing sensitivities.
- Accommodations and strategies can make a massive difference in symptoms. Simple accommodations in the home, school, or community can significantly improve a child’s ability to cope with their sensory difficulties. Some examples include wearing noise-canceling headphones and sensory-friendly clothing or creating a calm space for breaks.
- Create a sensory-friendly atmosphere: employ minor changes to your environment, like softening the lighting, limiting clutter, or offering plenty of fidget gadgets to help children feel more comfortable and regulated.
- Seek professional help: Explore your options for support with sensory specialists, ABA professionals, or an occupational therapist, and discuss your child’s unique sensory experiences as objectively as you can.
- Encourage self-regulation: Teach your child calming techniques such as deep breathing, taking breaks, and using sensory toys to help them manage their sensory responses independently.
How Is Sensory Processing Disorder Diagnosed?
According to experts like the American Academy of Pediatrics, SPD should not be a standalone diagnosis because it does not have universally accepted diagnostic criteria. However, sensory processing difficulties can be evaluated and managed through various consultations and interventions, which include a comprehensive assessment by a medical professional who understands the basics of SPD and its prominent features. Additionally, sensory symptoms are an element of the diagnostic criterion of autism in the DSM-5.
What Causes Sensory Processing Disorder?
The exact cause of SPD remains inconclusive, although some researchers suggest SPD can result from combinations of genetic and environmental variables. Some experts suggest there are differences in the brain structure and function in individuals with SPD, particularly in regions related to sensory processing, meaning that children with SPD may process sensory information differently than those without the condition, leading to their, at times, unusual responses.
Treating Sensory Processing Disorder
Early intervention is crucial for children with sensory processing disorders, as it can significantly improve their ability to cope with sensory input and regulate their responses. Starting early treatment can also help individuals better refine essential skills such as social interaction and motor coordination so they have more ease progressing through therapy as they age. With the proper support and accommodations, children with SPD can learn to navigate their world more effectively and reach their full potential.
In most cases, early intervention is the first step. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to treating SPDs in children with autism, there are various therapeutic interventions that can help improve their sensory processing abilities and coping, making it essential to work closely with professionals and develop individualized treatment plans for your child. These therapies may include:
- Occupational Therapy: treatment focusing on helping individuals develop the skills needed for daily living tasks, such as dressing, eating, and playing.
- Sensory Integration Therapy: teaching individuals how to adapt and tolerate various sensory experiences through sensory-specific interventions.
- Speech Therapy: Speech therapists may use various techniques, such as social stories and visual aids, to help individuals better understand and respond to sensory stimuli.
- Applied Behavior Analysis: ABA focuses on teaching new skill sets while redirecting and replacing maladaptive behaviors through positive reinforcement.
ABA Therapy and Sensory Processing Disorder in Children with Autism
ABA therapy is a very effective tool for addressing sensory processing difficulties in children with autism, alongside the complicated behaviors they can express at times. By utilizing behavior modification techniques, ABA providers support neurodivergent children in regulating their responses and developing strategies for managing sensory issues. ABA therapy ultimately improves the quality of a client’s life by assisting clients in engaging more fully with their surroundings and communities through evidence-based ABA care.
There Is Hope for Families with Children Experiencing Sensory Processing Disorder
In conclusion, for many, understanding sensory processing disorder is a critical component of supporting their child with autism. Fortunately, with the right interventions and guidance, children with SPDs can learn to live with their sensory experiences and triggers so they can flourish wherever they may be and advance toward remarkable futures.
Whether it’s creating a sensory-friendly environment, seeking professional intervention, or advocating for your children’s needs, as caregivers, providers, and allies, we all play a crucial role in promoting awareness and the acceptance of sensory sensitivities in our children with ASD. So, let’s continue to learn, talk about, and empower neurodivergent kids to reach their full potential and promote greater understanding of their challenges.
More About ABA Centers of America
ABA Centers of America offers individualized ABA treatment plans tailored to each child’s or teen’s unique needs and goals with their ASD diagnosis in mind. Our team of highly trained ABA professionals works closely with families to provide compassionate ABA support and guidance every step of the way.
Contact us today at (844) 923-4222 or via this online form to learn more about our ABA and autism diagnosis services and how we can support your loved ones’ journey in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
Remember, every effort counts and can make a world of difference in your neurodivergent child’s life.