Here are some common questions I hear related to the relationship between Autism and SPD along with my short and sweet answers.
Are Autism and Sensory Integration Dysfunction (now called Sensory Processing Disorder) the same? – NO
Are they related? – Maybe
Do you have to have SPD to have Autism? And vice versa? NO
Is the treatment the same? Sometimes
Still confused? Keep reading and I’ll see if we can sort it out a little!
Simply put, no – Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) are not the same thing. They are two separate disorders that can happen without the other condition being present. Briefly defined, Autism is a neurodevelopment disordered characterized by significant delays in social skills and communication along with restrictive, repetitive, and stereotyped play behaviors. Sensory Processing is the neurological process that organizes sensation from one’s own body and from the environment and makes it possible to use the body effectively within the environment. Or, more simply put, it is how our neurological system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. Sensory Processing Disorder occurs when there is delayed and inefficient neurological processing and the sensory signals do not get interpreted correctly.
While Autism and SPD are two different and distinct conditions, children on the autism spectrum do have a significantly higher rate of sensory processing delays. One study completed by occupational therapists showed that 84% of children with autism spectrum disorders had scores that indicated significant sensory processing delays as compared to only 3% for a group of typically developing children that were not demonstrating any signs of autism spectrum disorders. http://www.spdfoundation.net/pdf/tomcheck_dunn.pdf. At this time, there are no studies that prove whether or not early signs of sensory processing delays indicate whether or not a child will go on to be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.While we don’t fully understand the link between autism and SPD, more and more studies suggest that there are genetic components to both disorders and increased incidence of family history for both disorders, as well. It is possible that a genetic piece links processing delays and autism, but at this time there is not medical evidence of that.
Unfortunately, not every medial professional is educated in the difference between Autism and SPD and frequently misinterprets signs of a sensory processing delay as a sign of Autism. It is important to continue to educate parents and professionals so that children are not getting “mislabeled” and they can find the most appropriate help and services that they need.
Now I need to clarify my above answer related to treatment. I say treatment for autism and SPD sometimes looks the same because often times, part of therapy for a child with autism focuses on improving their sensory processing delays…in which case the treatment would like identical to a child with sensory processing delays. It is unlikely, however, that a child with SPD would need the same type or level of treatment for related social impairments and language difficulties that a child with Autism would need. Long story short – SPD treatment looks mostly the same even if a child has another diagnosis.