While Autism Spectrum Disorder and Sensory Processing Disorder are, in fact, two different disorders, it is true that children with ASD and SPD often display very similar behaviors.  The following is a list of behaviors that often times appear in children with EITHER Autism OR Sensory Processing Disorder.

Social Anxiety

  • Autism – Why do we see children with autism show anxiety when entering a new building, going to a sibling’s basketball game, or going on a field trip? Why do parents of children with autism often times struggle greatly with taking their children out into social settings? One of the main reasons that outings can be so stressful for children with autism is very simple – these outings demand a high amount of social interaction, one of the key skills children on the spectrum are lacking. Children with autism struggle with relating to others, initiating and engaging in conversations, and often times enjoy activities that are familiar, routine, and don’t involve other people.
  • SPD – Children with processing delays frequently struggle with social outings, especially outings to loud, crowded environments. For children with processing delays, the fluorescent lights at the grocery store can be blinding, the sounds at a restaurant can be deafening, and incidental physical encounters while playing at the park can be painful. When children have negative experiences in public over and over, they learn that the “outside world” is a scary, loud, painful place.

Feeding Difficulties

  • Autism – As research continues, more and more information comes out that shows children on the autism spectrum have significantly higher incidences of stomach/gut/ GI issues as compared to children not on the spectrum. Unfortunately, because of delayed speech and communication skills, it can take years for parents and/or professionals to recognize the stomach issues. During that time, children learn that food is more harmful than it is helpful. They can associate food with feelings of bloating, cramping, and overall stomach pain, which often times leads to difficulties with eating. In addition, children on the spectrum tend to demonstrate rigid behaviors, which overall makes introducing new foods / expanding the variety of foods very difficult. Beige, carbohydrate foods continue to be the most popular “comfort foods” for these children.
  • SPD – Tactile, including Oral Tactile sensitivities are very common in children with processing delays. Frequently, children with processing delays have oral sensitivities. While the symptoms and characteristics vary greatly, the end result is often the same – a limited food diet. Often times children with stay away from pureed consistency foods like applesauce, yogurt, or pudding. They struggle with wet, sticky foods like jelly or sauces or peanut butter. Children with oral tactile sensitivities tend to prefer dry, crunch foods like chips, crackers, or dry cereal. They often times refuse to get their hands messy and request napkins frequently. Children on the opposite end, however, may crave spicy and high flavor foods like salsas and BBQ sauces. They may seek out multi-consistency foods as they are under-responding to food input – foods like plain yogurt with granola, chips with salsa, or raw onions. Either way, children with oral tactile processing delays struggle with engaging in typical family meals and often times feel extreme stress at meal time.

Delayed Speech / Communication skills

  • Autism – To be diagnosed with autism, a child MUST demonstrate delayed interaction skills (back and forth communication, initiating a conversation, etc.) as well as difficulty with non-verbal skills such as eye contact. Research continues to look at the atypical communication patterns of children on the spectrum to gain a better understanding of why they demonstrate delayed communication skills.
  • SPD – In looking at children with processing delays, there could be a variety of explanations for why children with SPD have delayed communication skills. Some children struggle with attending to task because they are seeking increased movement (sensory seeking). Some children may have auditory processing delays and are therefore unable to take in communication as well as other children. Also, some children may have motor planning delay, which makes forming a verbal response very challenging. After trying for so long to communicate verbally but having no one be able to understand the words, these children may begin to try to speak less and act out more.

Rigid play patterns

  • Autism – Stereotyped and/or rigid play patterns are part of the definition of autism. There is not a lot of understanding as to why children on the spectrum develop intense and rigid routines. This behavior often times results in children only playing with toys in one way (spinning the wheels on the car only, stacking blocks upward only, wearing only a certain brand of shoes) and getting stuck on certain activities like turning light switches on and off in every room.
  • SPD – Children with processing delays can often times demonstrate rigid play patterns. These children may be having significant anxiety secondary to feeling overwhelmed with sensory input and as a result create calming, organized routines. These children may struggle with changing play patterns for fear of what sensory input the new play pattern might entail.     While this article focuses on how behaviors of autism and SPD can be different, It is important to note that children can be diagnosed with BOTH Autism and processing delays. Furthermore, in the recent changes to the autism diagnostic criteria in the DSM 5, a new characteristic of the disorder has been included that states: Hyper or hypo reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment.

For the new, full diagnostic criteria for Autism, please read What is Autism.

For more information on the relationship between Autism and SPD, see Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder.