4 Reasons You Need To Understand Sensory Processing Disorder

Plus Sensory Tips to Make Your Life Easier

Whitney Cummings, the writer and producer for the show, Two Broke Girls, realized she was in trouble when she came down with a rare sickness.


At the time, she was writing and producing her own NBC sitcom, working on the Two Broke Girls, and hosting her own talk show!

She was also in charge of managing almost 600 employees.

But she struggled with delegating and supervising others, hated to fire people, and had a hard time giving direct feedback.

When her doctor told her she was killing herself with overwork, people pleasing, and exhaustion, she went to counseling.

She discovered she had childhood trauma (PTSD) from growing up in an alcoholic family, and started a personal growth journey of EMDR therapy, equine therapy, and taking care of her health.

What she didn’t know (about PTSD, co-dependence, and how it was taking a toll on he health) was literally killing her!

What you don’t know about sensory processing differences in the autism spectrum may be killing you, whether you’re on the autism spectrum or not.

You and I should understand sensory processing because of its pervasive impact on living.

What Is Sensory Processing Disorder, and What Does It Look Like On the Autism Spectrum?

Per Wikipedia, “Sensory processing is the neurological process that organizes sensation from one’s own body and the environment, thus making it possible to use the body effectively within the environment.”

As a person with autism, you may experience challenges in one or more areas of sensory processing.

Here’s a video from Amythest Schaber, a young lady with autism.

As Amethyst explains, and Dr. Gaus lays out in the following table, challenges in any one of following areas can make life difficult.

Sensory Process Differences In The Autism Spectrum

Sense/Process Overresponsive Underresponsive
Sight Low tolerance  for certain lights or patterns Difficulty detecting depths, tracking a moving target, indifference to some visual cues
Hearing Low tolerance for certain sounds, exaggerated startle responses to loud or sudden noises, difficulty filtering out background noises. Lack of response or indifference to certain noises
Smell Strong aversions to some smells Failure to notice some strong smells
Taste Strong food aversions Lack of interest in some foods
Touch Sensitivity to light touch, deep pressure, fabric textures, clothing labels, clothing fasteners, or temperature changes, or low pain tolerance Indifference to temperature extremes, high pain tolerance
Balance Easily feeling off balance Failing to sense when the body is dangerously off balance
Motion Low tolerance for movement, inaccurate perception of the position of body parts Failure to notice movement, resulting in involuntary movement

source: Living Well on the Autism Spectrum, by Valerie L. Gaus, PhD

Here Are 4 Reasons You and I Need to Understand Sensory Processing

1.  Sensory Processing Differences Are Common In The Autism Spectrum, Both For Children And Adults.

Various studies have shown that autistic children and adults often process information from their senses differently than others (neurotypicals).

For example, Drs. Tomcheck and Dunn compared 281 children with autism to their neurotypical peers, using the Short Sensory Profile (SSP).  Ninety five percent of the sample of the 281 children showed significant differences from their neurotypical peers, with the greatest differences reported on the Underresponsive/
Seeks Sensation, Auditory Filtering, and Tactile Sensitivity. (Reference).

And these sensory processing differences continue into adulthood:

The present study assessed sensory processing in adults with ASD using the Adult/Adolescent Sensory Profile (AASP), a 60-item self-report questionnaire assessing levels of sensory processing in everyday life. Results demonstrated that sensory abnormalities were prevalent in ASD, with 94.4 percent of the ASD sample reporting extreme levels of sensory processing on at least one sensory quadrant of the AASP. Furthermore, analysis of the patterns of sensory processing impairments revealed striking within-group variability in the ASD group, suggesting that individuals with ASD could experience very different, yet similarly severe, sensory processing abnormalities. These results suggest that unusual sensory processing in ASD extends across the lifespan and have implications regarding both the treatment and the diagnosis of ASD in adulthood.
Sensory processing in adults with autism spectrum disorders – ResearchGate.

2.  Sensory Processing Issues Can Make Learning and Communicating Very Hard

Asperger Experts, in their video about the Sensory Funnel, explain that, when overwhelmed by sensory difficulties, people with sensory integration issues shut down.  Thus, their energy and emotional reserves are depleted over the course of the day, often leading to an emotional meltdown.

Imagine, like streamofawareness, having to go through the day like this:

Disclaimer!  Not every autistic person experiences life this way.  There’s a great deal of variability on the spectrum.  But you may experience sensory challenges in other ways and to different degrees.

3.  Parents and Teachers Who Don’t Understand Sensory Processing Issues May Make Tragic Mistakes

Imagine, as a parent or teacher, watching your child have temper tantrums, refuse certain foods, becoming upset with transitions.

Without understanding sensory processing issues, you and I may label this behavior as spoiled, disrespectful, or defiant.

Power struggles and emotional meltdowns ensue.

We may remove their privileges, or yell, or lose our own tempers.

Meanwhile, we don’t know that the sensory processing issues are the real cause of what’s going on.

We may end up punishing our child for issues that are part and parcel of being autistic.

4.  When You Understand Sensory Processing Disorder, You Can Make Life Manageable.

Whether you are a parent, spouse, teacher, or adult with autism, once you understand sensory processing disorder, you can address it!

Here are some tips from SPD Life.

a)  Learn about SPD and how it has affected your life.

Visit SPD Life and SPD Foundation to read, learn, and connect with others who understand sensory processing disorder.

b) Reframe your perspective on your daily actions, decisions, memories, and thoughts.

Reframe your perspective on your daily actions, decisions, memories, and thoughts. Now that you understand SPD, you will be able to see the many ways in which your life is formed around it, or even run by it. It may be a difficult revelation, as it can alter your whole outlook on yourself, but often, knowing which of your quirks have a sensory base will allow you to take the blame off yourself and improve your self-image. Changing the way you look at your behavior will allow you to navigate through life better and to anticipate when things may upset you.

source: http://spdlife.org/articles/dealingwithspd.html

c) Rewire your brain and your experiences through Sensory Integrative Occupational Therapy.

If you’re an adult, find an occupational therapist in your area, who is familiar both with sensory processing disorder and with autism.

Other Tips:

Assess, reading the table above about sensory challenges, where you may struggle.  Then go to the online forums for SPD Life, and get feedback about sensory solutions that can address those areas.

Read Cynthia Kim’s series about sensory processing.  In particular, you’ll enjoy her article about creating a sensory diet that works for you.


spd-infographicI’m not an occupational therapist, nor do I play one on TV.

But knowing and learning about sensory processing conditions has helped me better work with my son and with autism counseling clients.

After a long day of work, I feel tired, sometimes hungry, and a bit down.  My physical and mental reserves are depleted.

When I remind myself that I need a good night’s sleep, get a bit to eat, and remind myself that I’m always more pessimistic at night, I usually feel better in the morning.

In the same way, people with autism need empathy, understanding, and accommodations to order their environments and sensory inputs to their advantage.

Parents, teachers, and therapists, please respect your autistic students and clients.

Wives and husbands, please treat your partner with respect and seek to help him or her create the sensory solutions to make life manageable.

If you’re an autism adult, take heart!  Learn as much as you can about sensory processing disorder, reach out for help, and put some sensory tips to work in your life.

I’d love to hear from you.  What are your thoughts, tips, and/or experiences with sensory processing disorder?  Any books, websites, or resources you recommend?

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 I'm Steve Borgman.  I'm a licensed clinical professional counselor and blogger committed to bringing you hope, understanding, and solutions that you can apply to your life immediately.

Are you tired of feeling alone, like you're the only one in this world? Please join the Thrive with Aspergers Community to connect with others just like you!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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  • Full Spectrum Mama

    As someone who was diagnosed with PTSD, before being diagnosed with sensory processing differences and, before my son’s and my spectrum diagnoses, I wonder how much my sensitivities interweave with my trauma…A LOT, I suspect. Interesting post – thanks!

  • http://www.myaspergers.net/ steveborgman

    You make an excellent point! The only way to really tell if the sensory sensitivites are stricly PTSD related would be to be treated for the PTSD to a point where you feel better. If the sensory sensitivies continue, then you probably do have sensory processing differences. To your point, I believe PTSD would magnifity the sensory processing differences already there.

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