Sensory Processing Disorder vs. Autism: Are They The Same?

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) and autism (ASD) are neurodevelopmental disorders that can appear in early childhood. While they often occur together, you can have sensory issues without autism.

Are sensory issues a sign of autism? They can be an additional symptom that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder struggle with, but not every autistic individual will experience them.

SPD without autism does occur, and SPD has been estimated to occur in 5-16% of Children in the United States. Furthermore, there are significant differences in certain brain networks between these two conditions. [i]

It is important to note that while SPD is not an official DSM diagnosis, it is a condition that can significantly disrupt or negatively affect everyday life. Early and effective treatment is crucial for better outcomes in a person's daily life. [ii] [iii] [iv]

The Drake Institute uses a unique non-drug approach to treating both sensory processing disorder and autism that includes qEEG brain mapping to identify brain dysregulation linked to symptoms. For decades, we have used advanced treatment technologies like qEEG brain mapping and neurofeedback to address brain dysregulation and reduce symptoms.

For more information regarding our non-drug treatment protocols, call us at 800-700-4233 or fill out the contact form.

What Is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that ranges from mild to severe and includes repetitive behaviors, impaired social communication, restricted interests, and rigidity.

Autism was long considered a separate diagnosis from similar conditions. However, in 2013, the DSM-5 recategorized autism as Autism Spectrum Disorder, a spectrum which also includes Asperger's Disorder, childhood disintegration disorder, and PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder not otherwise specified).

Though no definitive cause has been identified, research has suggested that there are genetic and/or environmental factors that contribute to the development of autism.

What Are The Signs & Symptoms Of Autism?

Not every person with ASD will have all the symptoms, and the severity of symptoms differs from person to person. A reliable diagnosis can often be made at two years old and monitoring your child's developmental milestones throughout early childhood can help ensure early detection and clinical intervention, leading to a better outcome.

Below are some of the most common signs and symptoms of autism: [v]

  • Avoids eye contact
  • Doesn't respond to name by 9 months of age
  • Lack of facial expressions (e.g., happy, sad, angry, etc.) by 9 months of age
  • Doesn't play simple interactive games (e.g., pat-e-cake) by 12 months of age
  • Uses few or no hand gestures (e.g., doesn't wave hello or goodbye) by 12 months of age
  • Doesn't share interests with others (e.g., doesn't show you their favorite toy) by 15 months of age
  • Doesn't point to show you something interesting by 18 months of age
  • Doesn't notice when others are hurt or upset by 24 months of age
  • Doesn't notice other children and play with them by 36 months of age
  • Doesn't pretend to be someone else (e.g., teacher, superhero, etc.) by 48 months of age
  • Doesn't sing, act, or dance for you by 60 months of age

What Is A Sensory Processing Disorder?

SPD, or Sensory Processing Disorder, is a neurological condition that affects how a person's brain processes sensory information from the environment. People with SPD may be under- or over-sensitive to certain stimuli, like light, sound, touch, and smell. SPD is not an official DSM diagnosis.

Sensory Processing Disorder can affect anyone, but it is most often diagnosed in children. Like other neurological conditions, symptoms don’t present the same way in everyone. Depending on the severity of symptoms, people with SPD can experience significant discomfort with clothing tags or certain types of fabrics, food textures or tastes, loud noises, and in some cases, even getting haircuts. [vi] [vii] [viii]

To be clear, sensory processing disorder is not autism, though they may occur together.

Symptoms of a Sensory Processing Disorder

As the name of the condition applies, symptoms of SPD are connected to how a person processes sensory input. This can include how food tastes or feels in the mouth, how bright a light appears, or the intensity of sounds. These symptoms are divided into two categories: oversensitivity and under-sensitivity. The severity of symptoms differs from person to person, and not everyone will have all symptoms.

Below are some of the most common symptoms related to sensory processing disorder: [ix]


  • Sensitivity to light, loud sounds, etc.
  • Poor balance
  • Sensitivity to food textures
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Low pain threshold


  • Can spin without getting dizzy
  • Seeks thrills
  • Trouble recognizing personal space
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Difficulty picking up social cues
  • Chews on clothing
  • High pain threshold

Types of SPD

Because of the variety of symptoms and how they affect people with SPD, researchers have found different types or patterns of SPD. These patterns indicate the general ways that a person experiences dysregulated sensory processing.

The three main types of SPD are sensory modulation disorder, sensory-based motor disorder, and sensory discrimination disorder.

Sensory modulation disorder

This type of SPD affects an individual's ability to process and regulate sensory information. These individuals may over- or underreact to stimuli. In some cases, they may actively avoid or seek out certain stimuli.[x]

Sensory-based motor disorder

Sensory-based motor disorder indicates that a person's sensory processing affects their fine motor skills, balance, and our sense of our body positioning. This disorder can present challenges when it comes to planning and executing body movements. [xi]

Sensory discrimination disorder

The final pattern of SPD is sensory discrimination disorder. This type of SPD causes an individual to have difficulties with interpreting sensations that they are experiencing. They may not be able to identify common bodily sensations, like hunger, thirst, or when to use the bathroom. The brain may also misinterpret visual cues and sounds, making reading difficult. [xii]

What Causes SPD?

There is no known cause of sensory processing disorder. Researchers are exploring genetic factors. [xiii]

How Do ASD & SPD Compare?

ASD and SPD are similar in that they are both neurodevelopmental disorders that arise in childhood. Both conditions can affect how a person behaves and reacts to the world around them.

While not every person with ASD will also have SPD, sensory processing disorder and autism can commonly occur together. Research has found that more than 80% of autistic children also have sensory processing disorders. Overall, in the United States, around 1 in 20 children have some form of SPD, while autism occurs in 1 in 44 children. [xiv] [xv]

You can have a sensory processing disorder without autism. Likewise, sensory processing issues do not automatically mean that autism is diagnosed. [xvi]

How The Drake Institute Treats Autism

The Drake Institute uses specialized, advanced technologies including QEEG brain mapping, neurofeedback, and neurostimulation to help reduce the presence and severity of symptoms related to sensory processing disorder (SPD), autism, ADHD, stress, anxiety, PTSD, and other medical conditions.

Brain Mapping

Brain mapping is one of the first steps in creating our individualized treatment plans. In this stage, 19 sensors are placed in targeted locations on the patient’s scalp. These locations correlate with different areas of the brain responsible for focus, executive functioning, memory, language, sensory processing, social processing, emotional regulation, and more.

The sensors measure brain activity, and the results are examined to identify any areas or brain networks that are dysregulated linked to symptoms. Our Medical Director compares the findings on the QEEG to what is happening with the patient so that he can develop an effective and individualized treatment protocol for each patient.


After brain mapping is completed and analyzed, customized neurofeedback protocols are developed by our Medical Director to help patients reduce the symptoms of sensory processing disorder.

Treatment protocols are designed to improve brain dysregulation by guiding brain activity toward more functionally appropriate patterns.

In some patients, biomedical abnormalities may need to be treated to maximize improvement from neurofeedback therapy.


In some cases, we may also use neurostimulation guided by QEEG brain map findings to gently guide the brain into a more optimal functioning pattern. We’ve found that some patients benefit even more from neurofeedback if we also use neurostimulation. Neurostimulation is particularly helpful for lower-functioning children on the Autism Spectrum.

Contact The Drake Institute Today!

For over forty years, Drake has helped thousands of patients with various disorders such as sensory processing disorder, autism, ADHD, anxiety, depression, insomnia, migraine headaches, and hypertension achieve an improved quality of life by reducing their symptoms. To find out more about how we use brain mapping and neurofeedback therapy to help reduce symptoms, call us at 800-700-4233 or fill out the free consultation form to get started.


















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“David F. Velkoff, M.D., our Medical Director and co-founder, supervises all evaluation procedures and treatment programs. He is recognized as a physician pioneer in using biofeedback, qEEG brain mapping, neurofeedback, and neuromodulation in the treatment of ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and stress related illnesses including anxiety, depression, insomnia, and high blood pressure. Dr. David Velkoff earned his Master’s degree in Psychology from the California State University at Los Angeles in 1975, and his Doctor of Medicine degree from Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta in 1976. This was followed by Dr. Velkoff completing his internship in Obstetrics and Gynecology with an elective in Neurology at the University of California Medical Center in Irvine. He then shifted his specialty to Neurophysical Medicine and received his initial training in biofeedback/neurofeedback in Neurophysical Medicine from the leading doctors in the world in biofeedback at the renown Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. In 1980, he co-founded the Drake Institute of Neurophysical Medicine. Seeking to better understand the link between illness and the mind, Dr. Velkoff served as the clinical director of an international research study on psychoneuroimmunology with the UCLA School of Medicine, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and the Pasteur Institute in Paris. This was a follow-up study to an earlier clinical collaborative effort with UCLA School of Medicine demonstrating how the Drake Institute's stress treatment resulted in improved immune functioning of natural killer cell activity. Dr. Velkoff served as one of the founding associate editors of the scientific publication, Journal of Neurotherapy. He has been an invited guest lecturer at Los Angeles Children's Hospital, UCLA, Cedars Sinai Medical Center-Thalians Mental Health Center, St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, California, and CHADD. He has been a medical consultant in Neurophysical Medicine to CNN, National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel, Univision, and PBS.”

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