Can A Child Have Sensory Issues And Not Be Autistic?

Boy with autism
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Autism, also known as an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a developmental disability in children that affects the way they interact with the world around them. The effects of ASD can vary from person to person.

Common signs of autism include the impact on social skills, repetitive behaviors, preference for routine and rituals, fixation on their interest areas, and hyper or hyposensitivity to sensory input. As this disorder is a spectrum, children with ASD may experience different signs and symptoms.

However, if your child is hypersensitive or hyposensitive to sensory input, does that mean they have autism?

Most children with sensory issues do not have an autistic spectrum disorder. Not everyone who experiences sensory issues has autism spectrum disorder. Although children with autism spectrum disorder may experience sensory issues, a lot of children struggle with sensory issues without having autism.

There are certain differences between the characteristics of autism spectrum disorder and sensory processing disorder. Children with ASD may experience difficulties with sensory processing, but they also have difficulty with social interaction and communication. Whereas, children with a sensory processing disorder, typically have no major issues with social interaction.  

Let’s have a look at what Sensory Processing Disorder is and compare it to ASD.

Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a neurological disorder that makes it challenging for individuals or children to receive and respond to information coming via senses. Though SPD is not a distinct medical condition, Occupational Therapists have worked with children with sensory processing disorder for decades.

The disorder can make it difficult for the individual to process the sensory information and thus, day-to-day activities can be overwhelming for children with SPD. 

Some of the signs and symptoms of sensory processing disorder are as follows:

  • Incoordination or seem clumsy
  • Dislike of glare or bright lights
  • Soft touches may be painful
  • Low sounds might seem loud
  • Dislike wearing certain clothing

Sensory processing disorder can be identified in childhood. This disorder can also co-occur with other conditions like autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Thus, it is important to diagnose sensory processing issues at an early stage for proper treatment and guidance.

Occupational Therapists work closely with children with sensory processing difficulties and offer sensory strategies and exercises to help them in their daily lives. Notably, the progress of the therapy depends upon the severity of the symptoms and how much they are impacting the child’s ability to do activities throughout the day.

Children who have SPD might be hyper or hypo-sensitive to sensory input.

  • Hyper-sensitivity– It is a condition in which kids easily get stimulated by their sensory stimuli. In such cases, a child might have coordination issues, low tolerance to pain or be highly sensitive to bright lights or noisy sounds. Fussy eating can also be noticed in some children with hypersensitivity.
  • Hypo-sensitivity- There are children who do not have enough sensory stimulation and thus, are known as hypo-sensitive. These children have high pain tolerance and thus, do not find it important to share the feelings with their parents or caregivers. Children with hyposensitivity might appear to zone-out even in noisy surroundings.They might bump into the surrounding walls or objects and hurt themselves without knowing. Although these children may not exhibit as many behaviors as children who are hyper-sensitive, it is still very important to receive support from Occupational Therapists to help with their sensory processing.

Similarities Between Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder

Many children with autism also have sensory processing disorder and experience sensory issues throughout their daily life. Therefore, children with ASD and SPD may have some similar behaviors to children who have SPD.

For example, these children are either hyper- or hypo-sensitive to sensory input. They may:

  • Be fussy eaters and have a limited diet
  • Dislike grooming activities such as brushing teeth and washing hair
  • Dislike loud noises and bright lights 
  • Requiring additional movement opportunities throughout the day 
  • Appear clumsy and uncoordinated.

Differences between Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder

There are some areas in which autism and sensory processing disorder are alike. However, these two disorders are very different from one another.

Longevity of the condition

As children with SPD grow older, they may have more strategies to help them manage their sensory processing difficulties. Similarly, they may choose certain occupations and environments more suitable to their sensory needs.

On the other hand, though some of the symptoms or behaviors of autism can be improved with therapy, the condition cannot be treated completely.

Self-stimulatory behaviors

In addition to sensory behaviors mentioned above, children with ASD may display self-stimulatory behaviors like spinning, rocking or hand-flipping. These are often calming strategies that the child exhibits and can be hard to eliminate.

Social communication and interaction

Although children with ASD may display sensory issues, they also have social and communication difficulties.

Children with sensory processing disorders may have similar behaviors to address their sensory issues, but do not show the other traits of autistic spectrum disorders, including poor social and communication skills.

Find the Right Diagnosis

No matter if the child is having an autistic spectrum disorder or sensory processing disorder, it’s important for parents to find the right professional for the right diagnosis and treatment. Early diagnosis and treatment can improve the symptoms of SPD and your child can lead a healthy and normal life. Even the sensory issues of autism spectrum disorder can also be alleviated with proper therapy from early intervention.  

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