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What You Need to Know About Sensory Issues and Autism

sensory issues and autism

originally published on


In 2014, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported that 1 in 68 school-aged children were diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. A more recent parent survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics puts that number much higher, reporting 1 in 45 children aged 3 and older have autism. When we look at the frequency of this diagnosis, it’s important to look past the statistics and realize that, with every new diagnosis of a child, there is a family desperately trying to decipher what this new label means, how it will impact daily life, and what they can do to help their child develop, learn, interact, and be successful.


Luckily, there are many professional organizations that aim to educate parents on Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism Speaks provides parents with the most recently revised diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder as published by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and we’ve outlined the basics of those criteria below.

  • Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by:

  • Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity,

  • Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction,

  • Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationship

  • Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history:

  • Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech

  • Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment

  • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus

  • Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns or verbal nonverbal behavior

  • Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period

  • Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.

  • These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) or global developmental delay.

The reason it is important to read all of these criteria in one view is to better understand some of the “symptoms” or “behaviors” of autism, how some of these symptoms can be connected to sensory integration dysfunction, and how to help your child make “sense” of it all!


If you’re new to a diagnosis of autism, you may just be starting to learn some other medical jargon like: sensory integration, sensory processing, and sensory processing disorder. In the therapy world, and especially when there is a diagnosis of autism, these terms are often spoken about without recognizing that the average person has no understanding of how complex our sensory systems actually are!

Did you know that there are actually 8 sensory systems in your body, not just 5? Our bodies take information in through sensory systems: auditory (sound/hearing), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), tactile (touch), vestibular (movement), proprioception (input from muscles and joints), and interoception (internal sensors indicating physiological conditions).

Sensory Integration is the process your central nervous system goes through when it takes information in from your body’s 8 senses, processes that information, and then responds accordingly. When one’s central nervous system has difficulty processing any of this sensory information, the body’s responses are atypical and can be observed in motor, language, or behavioral skill difficulties. Occupational therapists diagnose these atypicalities as Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD.

When we talk about Sensory Processing Dysfunction (SPD), occupational therapists diagnose 3 subtypes of SPD: sensory modulation disorder, sensory-based motor disorder, and sensory discrimination disorder. Each subtype is characterized by different deficit areas that will advise treatment for your child.

For more information on the differences between these three types of SPD, check out the STAR Institute resources here. For more information about sensory integration therapy, check out Harkla’s article here.


The STAR institute estimates, based on their research, that 75% of children with autism have “significant symptoms of sensory processing disorder.” Given that high correlation and comorbidity rate, we need to talk about how sensory processing disorder manifests in people with autism and how to support sensory processing to help them make sense of it all.

For people with autism, the sensory processing dysfunction can manifest in language delays or deficits, fine and gross motor delays, strong sensory interests, sensory aversions, an inability to interact with people and objects, an inability to stay within an interaction, repetitive sensory stereotypies (stimming), and much more. Now consider how many of those symptoms of sensory processing were also mentioned in the diagnostic criteria of the DSM-5. It’s no wonder that a multi-sensory approach to programming for children with autism is effective! Sensory integration therapy can minimize some of these symptoms of autism by improving sensory processing skills.


If you’ve read any of Harkla’s blog articles on Autism and Sensory Processing, you probably have a solid basic understanding of the language occupational therapists frequently speak! If not, start your researching here. You’ll read about:

  • Designing a “Sensory Diet” that works for you and your child

  • Assembling a “Sensory Tool Box” of activities and equipment that can be used at home and on-the-go

  • Some of the top Sensory Toys, Stim-Toys, and Fidgets to improve self-regulation

  • Sensory Integration Therapy

  • Sleep Issues, Autism, and how to support sleep with sensory input like weighted blankets

Let us at Harkla know how else we can support you, your child with autism, and how to address these sensory issues!


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