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Could Sensory Processing Disorder Be Causing Your Autistic Child's Meltdowns?

Autistic meltdowns and sensory processing

Although your child’s safety is the most essential thing during a meltdown there are other elements that you must look for and be aware of; such as, comorbid disorders that may be triggering them and what you can do to combat against them. We’ve all had those moments when our child melts down and we are left with no earthly idea what caused it. We are left staring at the floor, at our child, trying to figure out what triggered this reaction from this little person that we love so much. Often the issue isn’t Autism alone. Often one of the issues is a comorbid disorder of Autism called Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD for short.


SPD is often overlooked when diagnosing for comorbid disorders because the symptoms so closely resemble those of Autism. Many children with ASD also have SPD as well, some 80 percent. Individuals with SPD have a difficulty taking in, processing and responding to outside stimuli. They also have an increasingly harder time dealing with sensory input from within their own bodies as well. Simply put, they have a drastically harder time dealing with any sensory input or output. Some are overly sensitive, while others are not sensitive enough. There are 7 areas in which individuals with Sensory Processing Disorder have substantial issues.

The 7 Areas of Sensory Concern:
-Olfaction (smell)
-Gustatory (taste)
-Vestibular (balance and special orientation)
-Proprioceptive (kinesthetic-sense of own limbs in space)

As a result of these areas of concern and the significant issues that couple them, the children often act out when facing sensory overstimulation. For example: if a light is too bright for them, a sound is too loud, or a food is too squishy, etc. There are some key things to look for when questioning if your child has SPD.

Key Signs of SPD:
-Disliking textures in fabrics, foods, and grooming products (hating wool, not liking wearing socks, refusing to eat mashed potatoes, hating shampoos and gels)
-A tendency to get car sick, vomiting in the car, or an outright refusal to get into the car
-Fidgeting excessively
-Making loud disturbing noises to themselves
-Sucking on or biting fingers, toes, clothing, pencils, etc.

It is important to note that whether SPD is a comorbid disorder causing your child’s meltdowns or not, it is not recognized as a mental disorder in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, USA) or the ICD-10 (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems). That means that the diagnostic criteria that doctors use to diagnose mental disorders does not list SPD as a mental disorder. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a real disorder though. It is all too real to the families that deal with it and to the individuals that live with it. There are diagnostic tools for diagnosing SPD as well. It isn’t a guess and see type of diagnosis.

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Standard Diagnostic Tools for SPD:
-The SIPT (Sensory Integration and Praxis Test)
-The TSI (DeGangi-Berk Test of Sensory Integration)
-The SP (Sensory Profile)
-The Sensory Profile School Companion

There are also treatments that will make a great deal difference to an individual with SPD, as well as items to help them cope.

Such as:
-Sensory necklaces
-Sensory Bracelets
-Weighted blankets and vests.
-Sand Panels
-Rain tubes
-Hoberman Spheres
-Tangle Toys
-Light show toys
-Vibrating Pillows
-Noise cancelling headphones
-Sand Tables
-Shaving Cream Sensory Time
-and many more

My son has SPD, he was diagnosed when he was small. It has been 14 years of toilet flushing being too loud and car rides often leading to vomiting; also, fluorescent lights and LED lights are both often too bright, music can’t be too loud, and he cannot stand the texture of mashed potatoes. He will vomit. When he was smaller he fidgeted constantly and has always had sleeping issues, which can be associated with both Autism and SPD.

Weighted vests during the day and a weighted blanket at night, coupled with sensory bracelets and noise cancelling headphones made all the difference for him and for me. He’d chew the collars of his shirts like crazy until we got him the sensory bracelets. Not to mention weighted blankets and vests being a life saver for Zain, along with medications. All options can tend to be pricey though, so be aware of that. If you are interested in purchasing a weighted blanket or vest there are many websites available online that you can find with a simple search, same with the sensory items (such as the bracelet). Whether SPD is the cause of your child’s meltdowns or not, it is important to be aware of it because of the staggering statistics surrounding the percentage rate of it being a comorbid to Autism.

Public meltdowns are common and if SPD is the cause then they won’t calm until the overstimulation is broke. That may involve one of the sensory objects listed above, that may involve removing the child from the environment all together. Though most parents report that their child has no awareness for what is going on around them during a meltdown, this isn’t the case for all instances. Especially ones regarding SPD. If the child is vocal they may be able to tell you exactly what the issue is. Making remedying it much easier. In a great deal of circumstances, the child is nonverbal, meaning they have no cognizant speech. In these cases, there are many times when one parent is dealing with the meltdown and one parent is left dealing with the stares from outsiders. No matter what is causing your child’s meltdowns the fact is that special needs parent’s must have thicker skins than most.

Just remember, your child’s safety is the main concern. Always maintain focus on your child. If you suspect SPD, ask your child’s specialist or their OT at school for a sensory profile. I recommend asking both for one. Often a specialist’s insight will outweigh a school’s decision if they come to different conclusions.