February 20, 2024
Boy covering ears

Sensory Processing Disorder vs Autism: What’s the Difference?

Posted February 20, 2024

“Loud noises make me want to cover my ears and disappear into the ground, it’s borderline painful.  

Bright/flashing lights are anxiety-inducing and completely disorienting. Some textures can be absolutely terrible to deal with. Smells seem to affect me more than people around me. The other day I literally started shaking and having an anxiety attack and didn’t know where to put my hands after touching a bag with cucumbers that had gone bad.  

Every time I would mention any of that to my psychiatrist or therapist, they would chalk it up to anxiety. I’m left wondering what’s the actual underlying issue here. I think it might be autism but maybe I’m just sensitive to sensory things.” 


These are the words of a Reddit user who is confused by their own behaviors. They know it’s something more than anxiety, but even their psychiatrist and therapist can’t give them a more scientific explanation. 

Could you tell if the person has Sensory Processing Disorder or autism?  

It can be very difficult to tell the difference between the two, so let’s take a deeper look into both disorders.


What is Sensory Processing Disorder?


Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), also known as Sensory Integration Disorder, is a condition in which the brain has difficulty processing and responding to information received through the senses. These senses include sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, as well as the internal senses related to balance and body awareness (proprioception). Individuals with SPD may experience heightened sensitivity or low sensitivity to sensory input, leading to challenges in everyday life.


Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder


The symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder can manifest differently in each individual, and the severity of the condition can vary widely. Some common symptoms include: 


  • Overresponsivity: Bright lights, loud noises, certain textures of clothing, or strong smells can be overwhelming and cause distress or discomfort. 
  • Underresponsivity: Unresponsive to touch, pain, or sounds, which can lead to difficulties recognizing environmental cues or engaging in social interactions.
  • Sensory Seeking: Seek intense experiences, such as spinning, rocking, or touching objects excessively, in an effort to regulate sensory systems. 
  • Poor Sensory Discrimination: Individuals might have trouble distinguishing between different textures or identifying where a touch is coming from. 
  • Poor Motor Coordination: Challenges in activities such as writing, tying shoelaces, or using utensils. 
  • Emotional and Behavioral Challenges: Easily overwhelmed, irritable, anxious, or have meltdowns when confronted with sensory triggers. 
  • Difficulty with Transitions: Changes in routine or new environments can be particularly challenging for individuals with SPD, as they struggle to adapt to unfamiliar sensory experiences.


Sensory Processing Disorder can coexist with other conditions such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or developmental delays.


What is Autism?


Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how a person communicates, interacts with others, and processes information. It is called a “spectrum” disorder because its symptoms and characteristics can vary widely from one individual to another. Autism typically becomes apparent in early childhood and lasts throughout a person’s life.


Symptoms of Autism


In addition to these core features, autism can also be associated with various other symptoms and challenges, including:


  • Sensory Sensitivities: Heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli, such as lights, sounds, textures, or tastes. They may be overwhelmed by certain sensory inputs, leading to discomfort or distress. 
  • Communication Difficulties: Delayed speech and language development or might not speak at all. Trouble with pragmatic language skills, such as understanding sarcasm or maintaining a conversation. 
  • Intellectual and Learning Differences: A wide range of cognitive abilities, from individuals with intellectual disabilities to those with average or above-average intelligence.  
  • Motor Coordination Issues: Motor coordination difficulties, commonly referred to as “motor clumsiness.” 
  • Difficulty With Change: Individuals with autism often prefer routine and predictability, and sudden changes in their environment or schedule can cause distress.


While autism shares common characteristics, each person’s experience with the condition is unique. Some individuals with autism may excel in specific areas, such as mathematics, art, or music, due to their intense focus and attention to detail.

How Kids On The Move Helps With Early Intervention 

Early diagnosis and intervention are crucial in helping individuals with autism reach their full potential. Kids On The Move offers an Early Intervention program that includes assessments, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and other services for children to help them learn and grow in their first several years of life. Therapies and support services can assist in addressing communication, social, and behavioral challenges, allowing individuals with autism to lead fulfilling lives and participate more effectively in their communities. With the right support, many individuals with autism can make significant progress and achieve their goals.


Connections Between Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder


Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder are two distinct but closely related conditions that often coexist, and they share significant connections in their symptoms and characteristics. While they are separate diagnoses, the sensory processing difficulties observed in individuals with autism can overlap with those seen in SPD.


Sensory Sensitivities 

Both autism and SPD are associated with sensory sensitivities. Individuals with autism may experience hyper or hypo-sensitivity to various sensory inputs, such as lights, sounds, textures, smells, and touch. Similarly, those with SPD have heightened or reduced sensitivity to sensory stimuli, which can lead to overresponsiveness or underresponsiveness to their environment. 

Sensory Overload 

Both conditions can result in sensory overload, where the individual becomes overwhelmed and distressed by an excessive amount of sensory input. Sensory overload can lead to anxiety, irritability, or meltdowns in both individuals with autism and those with SPD. 

Social Communication Challenges 

Both autism and SPD can impact social communication skills. Difficulties with processing and responding to social cues can make it challenging for individuals to understand nonverbal language, maintain eye contact, and interpret emotions in others. 

Repetitive Behaviors 

Autism is characterized by restricted and repetitive behaviors, which can also be observed in some individuals with SPD. Repetitive movements or self-stimulatory behaviors can serve as a coping mechanism for sensory difficulties. 

Motor Coordination Issues 

Sensory processing difficulties can affect motor coordination in both autism and SPD. Fine and gross motor skills may be impacted, leading to challenges in tasks that require precise movements or body coordination. 


Studies have shown that sensory processing difficulties are highly prevalent in individuals with autism. Many individuals diagnosed with autism also meet the criteria for Sensory Processing Disorder, indicating a strong overlap between the two conditions.


Not all individuals with autism have SPD, and not all individuals with SPD have autism. However, the connections between these conditions highlight the importance of addressing sensory challenges in individuals with autism to improve their quality of life and functioning.


Differences Between Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder


Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder are distinct conditions, and while they share some similarities in terms of sensory challenges, there are significant differences between the two. Understanding these differences is crucial for accurate diagnosis and appropriate intervention strategies. Here are some of the biggest differences between autism and sensory processing disorder:


Core Symptoms and Characteristics 

Autism: The core symptoms of autism, as defined in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition), include difficulties in social communication and interaction, restricted and repetitive behaviors, and interests. These symptoms go beyond sensory issues and encompass challenges in areas such as social reciprocity, theory of mind, and the ability to understand and respond to emotions and social cues. 

SPD: Sensory Processing Disorder primarily revolves around difficulties in processing sensory information from the environment. While sensory issues can impact social interactions and behavior, the core features of SPD are focused on sensory sensitivities, responsiveness, and how sensory input is processed.


Diagnosis and Classification 

Autism: Autism is classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder and is typically diagnosed based on observed behaviors and developmental history. It is a spectrum disorder, meaning it presents with a wide range of severity, leading to various degrees of challenges and strengths in different individuals. 

SPD: Sensory Processing Disorder is not currently recognized as a separate diagnosis in the DSM-5. Instead, it is often considered a component of other conditions, such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or developmental coordination disorder. Some professionals use the term SPD descriptively to refer to sensory-related challenges but not as an independent diagnosis.


Scope of Symptoms 

Autism: The symptoms of autism encompass a broad range of challenges beyond sensory issues. These may include difficulties in communication (verbal and nonverbal), social interaction, executive function, repetitive behaviors, and specific interests. 

SPD: The primary focus of SPD is on sensory difficulties, such as sensory seeking, sensory overresponsivity, and sensory underresponsivity. While these challenges can affect daily functioning and behavior, SPD does not include the comprehensive social and communication issues associated with autism.



Autism: Autism is relatively common, with estimates suggesting that around 1 in 54 children in the United States have autism spectrum disorder. 

SPD: The prevalence of Sensory Processing Disorder is challenging to determine precisely due to its varying definitions and diagnostic criteria. However, it is considered to be a common condition, especially among individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders.




Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder are related in the sense that both involve sensory challenges. However, autism is a more complex neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by social communication difficulties, restricted and repetitive behaviors, and a wide range of other symptoms. On the other hand, SPD is primarily centered around atypical sensory processing, which may or may not occur in conjunction with other conditions, including autism. Proper assessment and evaluation by qualified professionals are essential to differentiate between these conditions accurately and provide appropriate support and interventions.