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Sensory Processing and Autism, what is it, and how can Occupational Therapy help?

November 21, 2023

As two disorders that have certain similarities and connections, Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are usually mixed up in everyday conversations and even in medical consultations. As a general observation, SPD is usually a co-occurring symptom of ASD. However, not every child with SPD has autism. Before delving into the instrumentality of occupational therapy in managing these two disorders, it is necessary to understand what they are and how they manifest.

sensory processing

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

SPD is a sensory impairment that impacts how an individual’s brain responds to information supplied by internal and external stimuli like touch, taste, smell, sight, sound, body position and sense of movement. This makes it hard to regulate physical activities such as balance, coordination, walking, running and even speech.

SPD typically affects children that fall between the ages of 6 and 11 years and comes in three forms:

  • Sensory Modulation Disorder: This creates difficulty in regulating responses to sensory input.
  • Sensory-based Motor Disorder: which affects motor skills due to sensory challenges
  • Sensory Discrimination Disorder: This comes in the form of difficulty interpreting and making sense of sensory information.

Sensory Processing Disorder also manifests in two major ways across all forms:

  • Hyper Sensitivity: This is when the child overreacts to stimuli. Examples include being distressed by loud noises or disliking certain textures in food, clothing and everyday items.
  • Hypo Sensitivity: Unlike hypersensitivity, the child usually has a high threshold of tolerance to stimuli. A child with hypo sensitivity might not feel pain or high temperatures and sometimes could go out of their way to seek intense sensory experiences.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

As the name implies, ASD is a wide range of neurological disorders that arrest development in the affected individual, which can be cognitive, social and even emotional. It is usually noticeable from a young age as it usually affects activities children should normally be able to carry out. Deficiency in communication and socialising with friends and family from an early age could be an indication of autism. While some display behaviours like throwing inexplicable tantrums and repetitive behaviours, others require certain things to relax, such as music or touch from a particular person. Examples of disorders on the spectrum include autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, and many others.

Some of the challenges children with autism face include:

  • Social Communication Challenges: This comes in the form of difficulty understanding and interpreting social cues, such as facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.
  • Communication Differences: Popularly observed to cause delay or even absence of spoken language. Sometimes, it could be in the form of a child speaking an unusual language.
  • Sensory sensitivities: This ranges from a heightened sensitivity to stimuli or diminished sensitivity and can lead to overreaction or underaction to sound, light, touch or temperature, depending on the case.

Similarities and Differences between SPD and ASD


  • Sensory sensitivities: Both disorders involve atypical responses to sensory stimuli, which can be heightened or diminished.
  • Impact on daily functioning: The sensory challenges from both disorders can affect how the individual performs day-to-day activities.
  • Repetitive behaviours: This can include rocking, hand-flapping or self-soothing activities.
  • Difficulty with change: Both conditions usually create difficulty with changes in routine or lifestyle.


  • Nature: ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder and is on a wide spectrum, while SPD is a condition where the brain has difficulty processing sensory information and is not on a wide spectrum.
  • Social and Communication Challenges: ASD is characterised by major challenges in social interaction, problems with establishing relationships and communication issues, while it is not a major feature of SPD

How Occupational Therapy Manages SPD and ASD

Occupational Therapy plays a vital role in supporting individuals with SPD and ASD. Since both disorders overlap in terms of symptoms and challenges they pose to the individuals, Occupational Therapy addresses them both effectively, especially where they are co-occurring in the individual. Here are ways Occupational therapy helps manage sensory processing and autism:

Sensory Integration Therapy:

Depending on whether the individual is hypersensitive or hypersensitive, occupation therapy introduces or withdraws the relevant stimuli to or from the individual in a gradual process. For instance, people sensitive to noise (which is at a normal auditory level for non-neurodivergent people) can be made to listen to the right amount of noise that gradually promotes improved sensory processing. This is achieved by exposing them to sensory stimulation in a structured, controlled and repetitive matter till the brain adapts. Examples of activities include ripping velcro apart, spinning a sling, bursting balloons, and drinking cold water.

Designing Sensory-friendly Environments:

Occupational therapists work outside their controlled environments, too. By collaborating with individuals, families, and caregivers, OTs work to create a sensory-friendly environment for the individual at home, school or work. This eagles from modifying the lighting, reducing noise levels, sound-proofing noisy electronics and sometimes educating friends and family on how to be considerate of people with sensory processing disorders

Developing self-regulating skills:

The long-term aim of occupational therapists is to ensure the independence of the individuals. Therefore, OTs teach individuals to self-regulate and cope with the sensory challenges they face daily. This includes techniques such as deep pressure activities, mindfulness, and other strategies to help keep their arousal levels at an optimum.

Improving motor skills:

OTs usually work on improving the motor and fine skills of individuals living with either SPD or ASD. Activities usually range from handwriting exercises to coordination drills and motor planning tasks.

Collaboration with other professionals:

OTs also work with professionals in other fields to create a well-rounded care system that develops the individual at a fast rate. OTs work with speech therapists, psychologists, educators and other necessary persons to provide a holistic approach to care.

Parents and caregiver education: OTs educate parents and immediate caregivers on how best to complement their work.


Sensory processing disorder and Autism are not a dead-end for a child’s development. Despite the challenges they pose, Occupational Therapy crucially empowers those with Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism, addressing challenges, fostering independence, and enriching daily life experiences.

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