Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) has Biological Basis With Unique Brain Changes (SPD, ASD, ADHD)

AutismAs many as 90% of children with autism (ASD- autism spectrum disorder) are known to have sensory processing disorders (SPD). This is also common in those with ADHD or anxiety and can be  found independent of other labels (diagnoses). In the study (you can read here… ) “Autism and sensory processing disorders: shared white matter disruption in sensory pathways but divergent connectivity in social-emotional pathways”, the structural connectivity of white matter tracts in boys with ASD and SPD were compared to that of typically developing children.  They found both the ASD and SPD groups had decreased connectivity in the temporal tracts involved in sensory perception and multi-sensory integration, and only the ASD group had decreased connectivity in the emotional-social processing areas. Their analysis found significant associations of white matter connectivity with auditory processing, working memory, social skills, and inattention across these three groups of children.

Our preoccupation with labeling children with diseases like autism, anxiety, ADHD, etc. has sometimes distracted us from realizing the common pathways to many disorders and indeed common causes that may have more to do with the timing of the insult to the developing brain, or the specific insult itself, than being a distinct disorder or disease.

An important study (found here… ) demonstrates the biological basis for sensory processing disorders. I often am telling parents, I see many if not most children with certain “glitches”.  I suspect many of these fall under the umbrella of SPD.  It is more a matter of which part of the brain was affected.  In this work from UCSF, the researchers studied 16 boys with SPD but without autism or prematurity and compared them to 24 typically developing boys matched for age, gender, handedness and IQ.  Imaging detected abnormal white matter tracts in the SPD boys, especially in the back of the brain where connections for auditory, visual, and touch-sense systems that process this information between the left and right sides of the brain are found.

This study demonstrates the biological basis for altered timing in processing sensory information which would make it difficult to process and integrate information coming from multiple senses.  The resulting sensory overload, or sensory chaos, would explain what we might see as distracted, or anxious, or ADHD, or autism symptoms. The authors point out that autism and ADHD children tend to have more tracts involved in the front areas of the brain where as those with just SPD have more involvement in the back part of the brain.


The image shows areas of the brain that can be affected by sensory processing disorders. Using an advanced form of MRI, researchers at UCSF have identified abnormalities in the brain structure of children with SPD primarily in the back of the brain.

For all of us parents with children suffering from “glitches” or SPD, Autism, ADHD, ADD, anxiety, etc., consider working with an occupational therapist who is doing work in the sensory integration area.  These studies may help in the end by getting sensory integration work to be covered by insurance.  Sadly, insurance companies often won’t cover treatments until they are proven, mainstream, and are treating a disease.  To that end, fine, let’s call SPD it’s own unique disease so we can start helping these kids with targeted sensory integration work.

If you were ever wondering what career will be needing more workers, this might be it:  Occupational Therapy with focus on sensory integration!


Dr. Paul





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