Kid's Work Therapy Blog

New Research Finds Differences in Brain Wiring for Children with Autism and Sensory Processing Disorders


While sensory processing disorders (SPD) in children have often been linked directly to autism and even attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a recent study out of the University of California at San Francisco reveals the differences between two. For the first time researchers have taken a separate, close look at the brain wiring of children with autism and those who have been diagnosed with SPD. They discovered that autism and SPD affect the structural connectivity in the brain differently––a finding that will allow for more effective diagnosis and treatment in the future.

The difficulty of diagnosing any sensory processing disorders separately from autism is that many of the symptoms tend to overlap in both disorders. While many children with autism may experience difficulties with sensory processing, other children have only SPD. The UCSF study is the first step in understanding how these differences manifest in children diagnosed with SPD or both SPD and autism. These differences, researchers found, come down to the functionality of white matter in the brain. White matter is responsible for brain connectivity, and in both SPD and autism the brain’s white matter tracts, which connect various sections of the brain, have been disrupted. This disruption can affect the children’s thinking, the way in which they process sensory information, their ability to perceive, and their actions, among other things.

According to the study, in both autism and SPD the connectivity in the back of the brain––responsible for sensory processing––is affected. But in children with autism, other parts of the brain, such as the more frontal regions, also show decreased connectivity. Through the use of advanced MRI scans, researchers were able to see the differences in connectivity throughout the brain for children diagnosed with SPD, autism, or both. These scans have helped to legitimize SPD as a separate condition from autism and other disorders that affect sensory processing. So while a child may be hypersensitive to sensory stimuli––loud sounds, bright lights, touch––have poor motor skills, and have a short attention span, this does not necessarily mean that the child has autism or even ADHD.

Having a better understanding of the differences between disorders that affect sensory processing will help specialists more accurately study, diagnose, and treat children. And while more research still needs to be done concerning many sensory processing disorders, this groundbreaking study will help in bringing more awareness to SPD as an actual condition. Recognizing and understanding SPD can be difficult because, as another UCSF article indicates, “Some SPD children cannot tolerate the vacuum, while others can’t hold a pencil or struggle with emotional regulation. Furthermore, a sound that is an irritant one day can be tolerated the next.” The condition comes in many forms and can change from day to day. If you would like to know more about the differences between sensory processing disorder, autism, ADHD, and what types of treatments are available for children experiencing any abnormal sensory processing, please contact Dr. Stephanie Foster for information.

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