Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), formerly known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction, is a neurological disorder causing difficulties with taking in, processing and responding to sensory information about the environment and from within an individual’s own body. The senses include visual, auditory, tactile, Olfaction (smell), gustatory (taste), vestibular (balance and spatial orientation) and proprioception (or kinesthetics, the sense of one’s own limbs in space).

While SPD is a condition separate from autism, 80% of individuals with autism also have SPD. Those who have SPD alone are sometimes mistaken for having autism so when their sensory issues are addressed, their “autism” is resolved.

A child with SPD is either going to act out or withdraw in order to manage the overwhelming stimuli of their environment. Lindsey Biel, author of “Raising a Sensory Smart Child” recommends first and foremost ruling out a physical reason for a given behavior, (i.e. if the child is hitting their ear, check for infection). From that point, take the behavior as a clue to what is bothering the child. Once that is addressed on a personal level, try to make the child’s environment more sensory friendly.

Numerous strategies and products exist to help you in this quest, and Ms. Biel’s website features many products and suggestions. For instance, in the school environment, one of the most loathsome sounds is chairs being dragged across linoleum. Taking an old tennis ball and cutting an X in it with a Xacto knife, then capping the legs of chair eliminates this problem. One school was savvy enough to do this to every chair in the lunchroom. The dreaded fire drill can be very traumatic, so you can have it written into your child’s IEP that they be told ten minutes in advance of the drill so they won’t be startled and can put on noise reducing headphones.

Addressing SPD in the classroom will help ensure your child’s success and skirt potential conflicts with educators. Self stimulating behaviors, or “stimming” are frequently punished by teachers unaware that they serve a self-calming purpose in the face of environmental stress. One of my son’s teachers sent him to the hall every time he tapped his pencil or fidgeted in his seat. Soon he was out in the hall crying all day every day. Behavior classes are often rife with children who have undiagnosed SPD – I had to fight tooth and nail to keep my son out of such a program.

My growing awareness of SPD helped unravel a mystery about my son’s condition. Diagnosed as psychotic in fourth grade and given Risperadone, I noticed more and more that the voices he reported hearing intensified with near heavy traffic or in a cacophonous locker room. When Risperadone was a miserable failure and his psychiatrist was pressing for Lithium, I postulated that SPD heightened his anxiety and if those issues were addressed, marked improvement would follow. Employing noise reducing headphones, seamless socks, chew toys, etc. confirmed my hypothesis and laid to rest his doctor’s ominous warnings of schizophrenia in my son’s future. His “voices” were actually OCD intrusive thoughts brought on by extremes of anxiety fueled by SPD. 

As a parent it’s wonderful to witness how something as small as a special cushion on a chair, or tee shirts without labels can instantly improve the quality of your child’s life. Carrying that knowledge into the field helps your child navigate his or her world. If you have unanswered questions about your child’s specific problems Ms. Biel’s book has a reference section to immediately identify solutions to any given sensory issue.