Diagnosing Autism and the Differences with Sensory Integration Disorder

When it comes to diagnosing autism, there are many different factors that need to be considered.  This is because the autism spectrum disorders have such a vast range of potential symptoms and no two cases are alike.  Therefore, it is very easy to mistake autism for another condition.  Among the most common mistakes when diagnosing autism is not understanding the difference between being on the spectrum, and sensory integration disorder.

This leads to the question of whether autism spectrum disorder and sensory integration disorder (also known as sensory processing disorder) are the same condition, or at the very least if they are related.  Does one exclude the other?  To begin, they are considered to be completely separate disorders, but to further understand them, Dr. Lucy Jane Miller performed a study “Quantitative psychophysiologic evaluation of Sensory Processing in children with autistic spectrum disorders”, involving 40 high functioning autism or Aspergers Syndrome children who were tested for sensory integration disorder.

Dr Miller’s results showed 78 percent of the participating children also displayed notable signs of sensory integration disorder.  While, 22 percent of the participants did not show signs.  However, a secondary study by the same researchers, “Relations among subtypes of Sensory Modulation Dysfunction” looked into children diagnosed with sensory integration disorder and tested them to see how many also had autism.  Within that experiment, zero percent of the participants had autism.  The reason that this is interesting is that while children with autism can exist without having sensory integration disorder, the majority show signs of the condition.  On the other hand, there is no inclination toward autism in children who have only sensory integration disorder.

Children with both disorders demonstrate challenges with high-level tasks that involve the integration of different areas of the brain.  This can include emotional regulation as well as complex sensory functions. However, the key to diagnosing autism as opposed to sensory integration disorder usually lies in the fact that autistic children experience greater problems in the areas of language, empathy, and social skills.  Sensory integration disorder children do not experience the same connective breakdowns for controlling emotional empathy and social interaction.

In both disorders, children experience difficulties in tasks that require their brains to make long-distance connections, for example, between the frontal lobes (which coordinate the activities of the brain) and with the cerebellum (which regulates the perceptions and responses within the brain).

If you think that your child may have one or both of these disorders, it is important to speak to your child’s pediatrician for autism diagnosing or identification of sensory integration disorder on its own or in combination with autism.  If autism or autism alongside sensory integration disorder is the diagnosis, then you will be able to begin talking about the possible treatments available.  These treatments can include various medications as well as alternative therapies and may overlap in terms of addressing aspects of both conditions simultaneously. For example many children with autism benefit from sensory integration therapies that also work well for children with sensory integration disorder.

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