girls looking at one anotherMost people know that sensory issues are related to autism spectrum disorders. However, a new study suggests that sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a standalone disorder, separate from autism. Research from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) finds that SPD, although not officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, is a distinct disorder. The UCSF research team discovered that children with SPD have different deficits in brain connectivity than children with autism. The findings may help children receive appropriate interventions.

The researchers compared the brain connectivity of three groups of boys aged eight to 12. They evaluated 16 boys with SPD, 15 boys with autism, and 23 typically developing boys. To discover how well the regions of the brain are connected, the researchers used a type of MRI called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). DTI measures the movement of water molecules through the brain. Tracking water molecules allows researchers to locate the brain’s white matter pathways and determine how robust the brain’s connections are.

Children with SPD and autism exhibit brain connectivity differences. Both groups have connectivity deficits in the brain region that handles basic sensory information. Children with autism, but not with SPD, have impairments in the brain connections related to processing facial emotion and memory. Children with SPD, but not autism, have impairments in the parts of the brain that link auditory, visual, and tactile sensory processing systems.

According to Elysa Marco, MD, cognitive and behavioral child neurologist at UCSF and the study’s corresponding author, children with sensory processing disorder “often don’t get supportive services at school or in the community because SPD is not yet a recognized condition. We are starting to catch up with what parents already knew; sensory challenges are real and can be measured both in the lab and the real word.”

Finding a biological basis for SPD may help the disorder gain more attention, which could help individuals with the disorder get therapies that can help them cope with sensory input.

This research is published in the journal PLOS One.

Previous news: