Welcome to another day in the A to Z Challenge, in which I write about autims. Today, I write about an important aspect of difficulty in autistic people: sensory processing. Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is sometimes also diagnosed in non-autistic children. Therefore, this piece may be useful for both people interested in autism and those dealing with SPD kids.
Sensory processing refers to the way the nervous system receives and interprets messages from the senses and turns them into appropirate motor or behavioral reactions. There are many different ways in which sensory processing difficulties can manifest themselves in people with SPD or autistic people.
The most common type of sensory processing disorder is sensory modulation disorder, which means an affected person over-responds or under-responds to sensory stimuli or seeks sensory stimulation. In autistic people, the stereotypcal (self-stimulatory) movements that are a core symptom of autism, are usually interpreted as a sensory modulaton issue. In fact, unusual sensory responses are a core symptom of autism in DSM-5. Some people are mostly sensory seekers, sensory over- or under-responders, while others exhibit mixed features.
In addition to sensory modulation disorders, sensory-based motor disorders (eg. dyspraxia) and sensory discrimination disorders are other subtypes of SPD. The symptoms of these disorders are not autism core symptoms but they are common in autistic people too.
I myself have many different symptoms of sensory processing difficulties. For example, I avoid certain textures. I wouldn’t wear jeans until age twelve, still hate the feel of brushing my teeth and dislike getting my hands dirty sometimes. These are symptoms of sensory over-responsiveness. So are being a picky eater and sleep problems, both of which are common among autistic people.
Symptoms of sensory under-responsiveness include appearing unreactive and slow, having extreme difficulty waking up, lacking awareness of pain and difficulty with toilet-learning (because of not feeling the urge to go). I myself do not have most of these symptoms.
Sensory seekers might appear impulsive. They often fidget excessively, climb or jump when it’s not appropriate, bite or suck on clothes, pencils, etc. I did/do many of these things.
I also have many symptoms of sensory-based motor disorder (dyspraxia), such as being uncoordinated and clumsy. Lastly, people with sensory discrimination disorder often have difficulty with tasks such as dressing and eating, have poor handwriting and will drop objects constantly.
How to tell if your child with sensory processing difficulties has SPD or autism? Since many of the sensory processing difficulties listed above are common in autistic people too, this may be hard. Sometimes, getting an autism diagnosis might be beneficial for the sake of treatment, because many health care systems do not fund therapy for sensory processign disorder. There are, however, difficulties in autistic people that those with “pure” SPD do not have. For example, autistic people often have difficulties with theory of mind (the ability to understand and respond to others’ motives and feelings) and executive functioning (organizational skills). If, in addition to sensory processign problems, your child particularly has social communicative problems, it may be advisable to have them evaluated for autism.