Autism vs. SPD: How are they Related | Dr. Roseann
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Autism vs. SPD How are they Related

Autism vs. SPD: How Are They Related?

Many parents of children with neurological conditions confuse SPD or Sensory Processing Disorder with ASD or Autism Spectrum Disorder because of their connections and similarities. While these two may seem similar, they are comorbid disorders, meaning they often occur together. 

Children with SPD may eventually develop autism later on in life, which is why early intervention is crucial. It is important to note that all children with autism have sensory issues but not all children with sensory issues develop autism. 

So what exactly does sensory processing involve and why does it lead to behavioral issues when a child's system isn't regulating? Sensory processing is taking information through the senses, with the brain and body modulating such information. If a person has a problem with modulating the information coming from the five senses, namely the visual, auditory, somatosensory, olfactory, and gustatory systems, they become either oversensitive or under-sensitive `. 

Both these conditions lead to a variety of behavioral problems. To understand them better, let me share the story of my friend and colleague, Maria Rickert Hong, before we dive into the details of ASD and SPD. 

Maria Rickert Hong's Almost Autism Story

Maria is a former Wall Street equity research analyst. She left her career when her first child was born, whom she soon discovered to have sensory processing issues. Maria referred to her son's story as “almost autism” because her son's sensory issues overlapped with, but weren't quite the same as, those of children who have autism. And when she had her second child, she saw that he also had some of the same problems to a lesser degree and used the same methods to address his sensory and immune issues.

During her research to understand and learn more about her children's conditions, she discovered that SPD's root causes are toxicity from heavy metals, gut dysbiosis, immune system dysregulation, nutritional deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, chronic inflammation, and other environmental factors. 

Armed with the knowledge she gained from extensive research, she cared for her two sons and led them to recovery. Maria has gone through the pains of navigating through SPD and decided to make it her life's work to guide other parents through the same ordeal. 

That's when she made the career shift from being a financial analyst to joining the newly founded non-profit Epidemic Answers and then becoming a Certified Holistic Health Counselor. As a parent of two sons with chronic health conditions, she learned how difficult it was to seek help for neurodevelopmental disorders. 

To help parents and practitioners find their way through the rabbit hole of lack of information about SPD, she wrote the best-selling book “Almost Autism” to serve as a clear roadmap on how parents and children wade their way towards recovery from Sensory Processing Disorder.

Maria's story is an inspiring and powerful one. There is nothing like a mother armed with the knowledge to not only change her children's lives but also that of so many others.

What is Autism?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder impacting one's emotional, behavioral, learning, and social functioning skills. It's not easy to understand autism because each child may have unique needs and strengths and there are so many myths surrounding this clinical condition.

Children with this developmental disorder exhibit social skills issues, nonverbal communication problems, and speech difficulties that have to do with pragmatic communication. The back-and-forth conversation skills that reflect interest and concern in another's life or opinions are something that isn't innate for autistics. 

They also show high interest in certain areas and exhibit repetitive behaviors. These high-interest areas or restricted instincts become the singular focus of their time and conversations. I recall a boy named David who only could talk about roller coasters. He would light up when we spoke about them and his face just “shut off” when we talked about anything else. David relied on adults to moderate the conversations and gives little effort into any other topic. 

Autism is presently on the rise, according to recent studies. As per 1980 estimates, approximately 1 in 200 children in the United States have autism. However, in a 2014 study, the numbers increased to 1 out of 68 (Weydert J. A. 2014) and today the CDC reports that 1 in 44 children have autism. 

Autism on the rise in the US

The problems of autistic children related to social interaction, learning, and attention impact their daily lives. They may also display different behaviors along the spectrum. For example, some autistic kids possess a high intelligence quotient, while others may have an intellectual disability. Because autistic behaviors are hard to identify, many of them are diagnosed later in life. 

Symptoms of Autism

Symptoms of autism begin during early childhood, although healthcare professionals may not diagnose it until clinical issues appear. It took more than a dozen years for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to update its autism guidelines, which meant that frontline pediatricians didn't have the right information for parents to start early intervention. 

The AAP autism guidelines were updated in 2019 and reflected some of the less-known but very common symptoms of autism including gastrointestinal issues and sleep problems. Food restrictions and sensory processing issues were also noted.

Autism symptoms can occur along a range and be persistent and interfere with the child's daily activities. The symptoms of autism are as follows: 

Common issues of Autism

  • Problems with verbal, nonverbal, and social communication skills
  • Issues with interpreting gestures, facial expressions, and body language
  • Failure to initiate and maintain eye contact
  • Can't understand or regulate the tone of voice
  • Has restricted interests and behaviors
  • Possesses extreme or narrow interests in particular topics
  • Requires a structured routine
  • Resists change
  • Do repetitive body movements, behaviors, and motions with objects
  • Stares at spinning objects and bright lights
  • Exhibits ritualistic behaviors 
  • Feeding issues and food restrictions
  • Sensory processing issues
  • Sleep problems
  • Constipation
  • Gatrointensional issues
  • Sensory processing issues

What is SPD?

What is SPD

Children suffering from Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) have difficulty responding to and receiving information obtained through their senses. It happens because their nervous system can't interpret sensory messages and match them to correlating behaviors or actions. 

The sensory input these kids receive isn't modulated appropriately in their central nervous system, creating issues in their behaviors, development, and information processing. Simply put, it's difficult for these children to act according to the sensory information they receive. 

These children become under-sensitive or overly sensitive to what's around them due to their sensory processing impairments. It is because the nervous system of children with SPD reacts differently to specific sensations. 

Those that take sensations too intensely tend to avoid sensory experiences altogether. On the other hand, children who take them too lightly tend to seek them. Often, these children will also have issues with their motor and planning skills.  

Because they can be under or oversensitive to sounds, sights, smells, flavors, textures, and other sensory inputs, they face challenges in performing countless everyday tasks. Tasks that are simple to neurotypical kids may seem overwhelming to them, causing meltdowns and tears.  

A sensory meltdown is different from a tantrum because it occurs because of a sensory overload. The neurodiverse brain is wired differently and therefore modulating simple information that comes from the senses – taste, touch, smell, scent, or sound  – can cause a behavioral meltdown that can be very tough for a child to recover from. 

Symptoms of SPD

Everybody has experienced difficulties in processing information obtained by their senses. But for children with SPD, this scenario is chronic and causes disruptions in their everyday life. In addition, SPD's wide variety of symptoms would differ whether the child is overstimulated or understimulated. 

SPD Symptoms

Overstimulated SPD Symptoms 

  • Hypersensitive or hyperacute hearing 
  • Fear of sudden loud music, high-pitched and metallic sounds, or other loud noises
  • Awareness of background noises that others may not hear 
  • Avoidance of cuddling and hugs
  • Afraid of heights and uncomfortable climbing 
  • Fear of surprise touch 
  • Clumsy, accident-prone, and uncoordinated 
  • Uses too much force 
  • Poor sense of space
  • Sensitive to fabric, clothes, and food textures 
  • Overly aggressive or accidentally harming other children 
  • Fidgeting, can't sit still and seeks thrilling activities

Understimulated SPD Symptoms 

  • Difficulty distinguishing similar sounds
  • Difficulty in following directions 
  • Has a poor sense of movement or speed
  • Poor tracking of visual and other sensory stimuli 
  • Can't find images in cluttered backgrounds
  • Poor strength, posture control, balance, and equilibrium 
  • Tires quickly and avoids carrying heavy weights
  • Can't establish right or left-handedness
  • Poor playing fine motor skills
  • Uses too little force
  • May be indifferent to pain
  • Constantly needs to touch people and objects
  • May bump into people and objects 
  • Prefers swinging and spinning
  • May make or seek out loud sounds

How are Autism and SPD Related?

Autism and SPD are two distinct conditions, but there's a subtle difference between them. As noted before, not everyone with a sensory processing disorder has autism, but almost everybody with autism has sensory processing issues. That is important because we need to monitor and treat all kids who display sensory issues.

There's no exact cause of why kids have sensory issues, but SPD is a part of autism and other mental health disorders, including ADHD, PANS/PANDAS, and Lyme disease. And in Maria's book, Almost Autism, she notes that along with infections, heavy metals and nutrient deficiencies are common.

Sensory sensitivity is not unusual for any neurological disorder associated with hyper coherence or overcommunication in the brain, which is visible on a QEEG brain map. Autistic brains are in overdrive and can therefore be easily spotted by an experienced QEEG clinician like myself.

In the case of autism, sensory sensitivity can be extreme. Due to sensory overload, the behavior of an autistic can be rigid, as they are very uncomfortable. They want to avoid that icky feeling that comes with sensory sensitivity.

In day-to-day life, autistic children experience a lot of challenges affecting their ability to pay attention, learn, and relate to others. SPD can compound the dysfunction and inhibit their participation in various activities (Suarez, 2012).

Autism occurs along a spectrum, which means the sensory processing difficulties of autistics can be dramatic and impactful to their daily lives and for others, it can be mild enough to cope with. Sensory inputs can cause consistent upset that makes parenting very hard and heartbreaking because it is hard to see your child in distress. It also triggers restricted behaviors, leading them to suffer from sensory meltdowns. 

So what should a parent do if they see sensory issues or suspect their child has autism? They should seek diagnosis and treatment.

Diagnosis and Treatment for Autism and SPD

The diagnosis of autism is possible using a QEEG Brain Map coupled with a thorough intake. This diagnostic tool measures the brainwave activity and shows the areas of the brain that are understimulated or overstimulated, effectively taking the guesswork out of knowing whether your child has autism, SPD, or something else.  You are able to see clear patterns that are common with these clinical conditions and rule out and rule in much more accurately.

The QEEG Brain Map of an autistic child will show too much brain communication, which contributes to rigidity. It means the brain is overcommunicating or overtalking and too easily gets “stuck.” There's a constant rev state that happens in autistic people. This tool helps healthcare professionals determine the appropriate treatment for your child's sensory sensitivities.

I recall working with a middle schooler whose parents weren't sure if Teddy was on the spectrum or not. They had him tested several times but no one was sure because he was so “high functioning” on the surface. After a QEEG brain map and thorough intake, it was pretty clear that Teddy displayed the brain patterning and behavior of someone with autism. 

When it comes to treatment, occupational therapy helps kids handle the sensory difficulties that SPD creates. It provides SPD and autistic children with a sensory diet, which allows the nervous system to regulate the sensory inputs coming in through a specific exercise regime. A consultation with a qualified occupational therapist will be helpful in the early treatment of this childhood disorder.

When used as a treatment for autism and SPD, occupational therapy helps children become more focused, flexible, and sociable. In addition, investing in sensory therapies can help kids increase their learning abilities, pay attention, and complete tasks. A study by Case-Smith and Arbesman (2008) reviewed the evidence of how occupational therapy addresses the sensory issues of autistic children. Sensory therapy can go a long way in reducing behaviors. 

Other science-backed natural solutions for autism and SPD include neurofeedback, nutritional supplementation, and speech, physical, and behavioral therapy. At our Ridgefield, CT clinic and through our remote treatment sessions, we use the BrainBehaviorReset™ Program to guide the parents of autistic children in calming their brains, improving their behavior, and reducing family stress. 

Citations

Case-Smith, J., & Arbesman, M. (2008). Evidence-Based Review of Interventions for Autism Used in or of Relevance to Occupational Therapy. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 62(4), 416–429. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.62.4.416

Suarez, M. A. (2012). Sensory Processing in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Impact on Functioning. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 59(1), 203–214. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcl.2011.10.012 

Weydert J. A. (2014). Vitamin D in Children's Health. Children (Basel, Switzerland), 1(2), 208–226. https://doi.org/10.3390/children1020208

 

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Dr. Roseann is a Children’s Mental Health Expert and Therapist who has been featured in/on hundreds of  media outlets including, CBS, NBC, FOX News, PIX11 NYC, The New York Times, The Washington Post,, Business Insider, USA Today, CNET, Marth Stewart, and PARENTS. FORBES called her, “A thought leader in children’s mental health.” 

She is the founder and director of The Global Institute of Children’s Mental Health and Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge. Dr. Roseann is a Board Certified Neurofeedback (BCN) Practitioner, a Board Member of the Northeast Region Biofeedback Society (NRBS), Certified Integrative Medicine Mental Health Provider (CMHIMP) and an Amen Clinic Certified Brain Health Coach.  She is also a member of The International Lyme Disease and Associated Disease Society (ILADS), The American Psychological Association (APA), Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) International Society for Neurofeedback and Research (ISNR) and The Association of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB).

© Roseann-Capanna-Hodge, LLC 2023

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to give health advice and it is recommended to consult with a physician before beginning any new wellness regime. *The effectiveness of diagnosis and treatment vary by patient and condition. Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, LLC does not guarantee certain results.

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