Special needs parenting

Understanding the Distinction: Sensory Processing Disorder vs Autism

Aug 1, 2023


Sensory processing disorder (SPD) and autism are two conditions that often intersect, leading to confusion and misconceptions. While they share some similarities in terms of sensory issues, there are distinct differences between the two. Understanding these distinctions is crucial for accurate diagnosis and appropriate interventions.

In this blog post, we will delve into the world of sensory processing disorder and autism, exploring their unique characteristics, similarities, and differences. We will provide an informative overview to help you gain a better understanding of these conditions and how they impact individuals.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory processing disorder (SPD), also known as sensory integration dysfunction, is a condition characterized by difficulties in processing and responding to sensory information from the environment. Individuals with SPD may have heightened sensitivity (hypersensitivity) or decreased sensitivity (hyposensitivity) to various sensory stimuli such as sound, touch, taste, smell, and movement.

These sensory challenges can significantly impact daily functioning and quality of life. For example, someone with hypersensitivity may find certain sounds unbearable or feel overwhelmed by bright lights, while someone with hyposensitivity might seek out intense sensory input by engaging in repetitive behaviors or seeking deep pressure.

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by difficulties in social interaction, communication challenges, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors. It is a spectrum disorder because it encompasses a wide range of symptoms and severity levels.

Individuals with autism often experience sensory issues as well. They may exhibit similar sensitivities or aversions to certain stimuli as individuals with SPD. However, it’s important to note that not all individuals with autism have SPD, and vice versa. The presence of sensory issues does not automatically indicate an SPD diagnosis or vice versa.

The Similarities between Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism

While SPD and autism are distinct conditions, they do share some similarities, particularly in terms of sensory challenges. Both conditions can involve:

  • Hypersensitivity to certain sensory stimuli (e.g., loud noises, bright lights)
  • Hyposensitivity to certain sensory stimuli (e.g., seeking out intense sensations like spinning or rocking)
  • Difficulties with sensory integration and modulation
  • Repetitive behaviors related to sensory input (e.g., hand-flapping, rocking)

These overlapping features can make it challenging to differentiate between the two conditions, especially when considering individuals who may have both SPD and autism.

The Distinctions between Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism

While there are similarities, it is essential to recognize the distinct characteristics that set SPD and autism apart. Understanding these differences can help professionals make accurate diagnoses and develop appropriate interventions.

Sensory Focus vs. Broader Social Communication Challenges

The primary distinction lies in the focus of the challenges. Sensory processing disorder primarily revolves around difficulties with processing and responding to sensory information. In contrast, autism encompasses a broader range of social communication challenges.

Individuals with SPD may struggle with sensory aspects but have typically developed age-appropriate social skills. Conversely, individuals with autism often experience significant difficulties in social interaction and communication beyond their sensory challenges.

Impact on Daily Functioning

In terms of daily functioning, individuals with SPD may face specific challenges related to sensory experiences that affect their ability to engage in daily activities comfortably. For example, they may avoid certain textures or sounds, leading to difficulties with self-care, learning, or participation in social situations.

On the other hand, individuals with autism face broader challenges that impact various aspects of daily life. These challenges can include difficulties with social interactions, communication, executive functioning, and flexibility in thinking and behavior.

Associated Co-occurring Conditions

Both SPD and autism can be associated with co-occurring conditions. For instance, individuals with SPD may also experience anxiety or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Similarly, individuals with autism may have sensory processing difficulties but could also have intellectual disabilities or specific learning disorders.

It is essential to consider the complete picture when evaluating an individual’s symptoms and identifying the most appropriate interventions.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosing sensory processing disorder and autism requires a comprehensive evaluation by qualified professionals such as occupational therapists, psychologists, or developmental pediatricians. These assessments typically involve thorough observations of behavior patterns across various settings and may include standardized assessments.

Treatment approaches for SPD and autism often overlap due to their shared sensory challenges. Occupational therapy is a commonly recommended intervention that focuses on improving sensory integration skills and developing strategies to manage sensory sensitivities.

In addition to occupational therapy, individuals with autism may benefit from interventions that address social communication deficits, such as speech-language therapy or Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy.


Sensory processing disorder (SPD) and autism are distinct conditions that share similarities in terms of sensory challenges. However, it is crucial to recognize their differences to ensure accurate diagnosis and appropriate interventions. While SPD primarily revolves around difficulties in processing sensory information, autism encompasses broader social communication challenges.

If you suspect that you or someone you know might have either condition, seek professional evaluation and guidance. With the right support and interventions, individuals with SPD or autism can thrive and lead fulfilling lives.