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Exploring the Link Between Sensory Processing and Anxiety in Autism

Some children with autism may also show signs of a sensory processing disorder (SPD). Depending on the strength of this disorder, it can cause extreme anxiety for children in very normal environments. In fact, school can be one of the most stressful places for children with a sensory processing disorder.

Similar to autism, SPDs present differently in each child. While you can look for the signs and symptoms, only the child knows how affected they are by external stimuli. That’s why it’s so important to pay attention, listen, and adjust treatment based on their individual responses.

Although some children with autism have sensory processing disorders, children can also have trouble with sensory processing apart from autism. They are not the same thing, but they can both be the root cause of anxiety in children. Keep reading to learn more about sensory processing disorders and their connection with autism and anxiety.

What Is Sensory Processing?

Sensory processing is the way people communicate between themselves and their environment. The brain reads signals from the central nervous system, which picks up external and internal information from the five senses.

Other ways that people gather data include the vestibular (balance), proprioceptive (movement) and interoceptive (internal sensing) systems. Here are a few examples of these less familiar senses:

  • Vestibular: These senses help establish a sense of positioning and awareness, like if you’re standing upright or upside down. This is also the same sense that lets you determine if you or the car next to you is moving.
  • Proprioceptive: These senses help you understand where your body is in space and how close you are to other objects.
  • Interoceptive: Interoceptive senses give information about internal temperatures, whether you’re hungry and similar.
  • Tactile: The tactile system is responsible for communicating to your brain feelings of light touch, pressure and pain.

Understanding sensory data helps people stay safe and engage appropriately in social situations. For most people, communication between their environment, senses and central nervous system works well and helps them easily navigate life.

When Sensory Processing Goes Wrong

Sometimes, sensory processing doesn’t work well. Children who have sensory processing disorders may respond very strongly to some stimuli — called hypersensitivity — and hardly seem to notice others, called hyposensitivity. Their behavior often doesn’t make sense to other people in the same environment.

For example, children with a sensory processing disorder may become incredibly overstimulated with loud noises. Going to a movie theater, visiting an amusement park or even going to school may send them into a meltdown because they feel so disoriented. There are four types of sensory processing disorders:

  • Sensory modulation disorder: An over or under-responses to sensory information
  • Sensory discrimination disorder: Confusion with where sensory data is coming from
  • Postural ocular disorder: Difficulty with physical stabilization
  • Dyspraxia: Trouble with movement, excessive clumsiness

Most people experience sensory discomfort at some level. Maybe you don’t like the way tags feel in clothing, so you always cut them out. You can probably also remember the uncomfortable feeling right before an elevator moves — that’s your body wondering where you are in space.

For children with sensory processing disorders, this feeling of discomfort may be magnified and constant.

Sensory Processing and Anxiety

Many children with sensory processing disorders are too young to explain or describe what they feel. When parents or guardians observe their response to sensory overload, it may look like a type of anxiety. However, this anxiety is only a symptom of the root problem — difficulty in receiving or processing sensory signals.

Imagine being at a concert where the music is too loud. As an adult, you can get earplugs or remove yourself from the situation. Children with sensory processing disorders may feel this disoriented when hearing a specific sound that bothers them, or hearing too many sounds at once.

What seems normal to others can be incredibly painful for them to experience. Because they don’t have the agency yet to control their environment, children with sensory processing often respond in a number of ways, including:

  • Meltdowns
  • High anxiety
  • Zoning out
  • Aggression
  • Extreme energy

Because these symptoms are similar to poor behavior, children with SPD may be classified as having discipline issues — when the reality is that they’re responding to either sensory overload or a sensory deficit. For example, children with hyposensitivity may run around, lick things, chew on their shirts and just generally seem to have endless energy.

Sending children to a mental health professional can help with anxiety, but what children with SPDs really need is help to receive and process their senses in a healthy way. With the right guidance, children can learn strategies to help them enjoy their lives instead of existing in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze.

What’s the Connection Between Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder?

Some children with autism may also experience sensory processing disorders. However, not all children with SPDs also have autism. In addition to co-occurring with autism, SPDs also often affect children with ADHD, learning disorders, Down syndrome, dyslexia and more.

It’s not yet known what causes sensory processing disorders, although researchers know it has to do with how the brain and nervous system processes stimuli. SPDs are not included as official disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, the symptoms are consistent enough that SPD is treated seriously by medical professionals.

A combined therapeutic approach is typically best for children with autism who also have SPD.

Treatment Options for Children With SPDs

If you think your child or a child you work with has a sensory processing disorder, the first step is to talk to a doctor. They can rule out any possible medical problems and refer you to an occupational therapist, who can help your child gain and maintain physical and mental coordination. While at therapy, children may practice:

  • Hand-eye coordination
  • Balance
  • Gross motor skills

Children with sensory modulation disorder or similar symptoms may practice Sensory Integration Therapy, which can help them learn to respond differently to sensory stimuli. With practice, they can gain coping skills to reduce anxiety and remain calm when triggered.

Help Your Child Thrive at Kids SPOT

It’s our mission to strengthen children’s life skills and well-being. We offer a variety of treatment options, including speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and ABA therapy.

Our Board Certified Behavior Analysts help children with many different developmental disabilities, including autism, ADHD, and more. To ensure the best results, we tailor treatment plans for each individual child and provide action steps for when they’re at home.

Contact Kids SPOT today to learn more about our services and how we can help your child thrive!