What Does Sensory Autism Mean?

What does sensory autism mean? A sensory disorder is commonly associated with autism.  However, it is important to know that sensory disorders and autism are not the same thing.  Additionally, sensory autism is not a type of autism.

This blog explains more about sensory and autism and in particular, how they overlap.  It is important to understand why sensory links with autism as well as how they are different.

Understand sensory autism by first learning about autism

In health care and medicine, autism is a developmental disorder. A developmental disorder presents in early childhood.  Moreover, it presents even in babies. Developmental, in this context, means how a person grows or develops.  In addition, disorder means there is a set of differences in daily life. Therefore, in medicine, a developmental disorder is one that is present from a young age and causes lifelong differences in daily life.

Autism is present from a young age.  However, signs and symptoms are not always identified in infants, although they increasingly are identified early. Autism is also life-long and is not something a child ‘grows out of’. Moreover, autism causes differences in daily life.  It is important to understand those differences and respect them. Some of those difference may make some things more difficult for autistic people. Other differences may make some things easier for autistic people. Specifically, one of those differences can be with the senses.  Therefore, you often see and hear the words “sensory autism”.

Autism, autistic, neurodiverse

There are a wide variety of differences with autism. Furthermore, the words that describe autism have changed and continue to change.  This is because medicine and health care change. Importantly, autistic people share words that are meaningful in how they describe themselves.  Disorder, used in medicine, may be understood negatively. On the other hand, newer words like neurodiversity better describe the differences for people with autism.  People with autism are neurodiverse.  “Neuro” means brain and “diverse” means different.   So, neurodiverse means different brains. Many people, not just autistic people are neurodiverse. 

Happy kids at elementary school with their hands raised.

Symptoms of autism cause differences in daily life

Language and communication.

Autism can cause differences in social communication, social interaction and relating to others.  This includes verbal communication and non-verbal communication with others.  Finally, people with autism may find it difficult to understand the social cues of other people.

You may have seen and heard the term non-verbal autism. For some people with autism, they are non-verbal.  In this instance, it means they do not speak or they speak very little.  However, this does not mean that they do not understand! Nor does it always mean they do not communicate. They use other ways to communicate, like sign language, a picture exchange communication system, typing, texting or even text to speech software or an app.

On the other hand for some people with autism, their speech is delayed. That does not mean they are non-verbal. However, it means they develop the ability to speak later than is typical for other children.

Non-verbal autism.

Non-verbal autism is not a type of autism.  As previously indicated, it simply describes people with autism who do not communicate by speech. But again, this does not mean that they do not understand.  People with non-verbal autism may understand everything.  Furthermore, it does not mean they do not communicate. People who are non-verbal often use different forms of communication, as mentioned above. One example is sign language.  Another example is a picture exchange communication system or symbols. More instances use technology like typing or texting and text-to-speech software or using a special mobile app.

Behaviour and interests.

Autism also causes differences with behaviour, interests, and activities. Subsequently, this affects how a person with autism acts, especially how they act with other people. For example, you might see or heard the words autistic behaviour. That means people with autism may behave differently.   Moreover, people with autism may prefer to have the same routines.  For instance, they may engage in certain repetitive tasks.  In addition to this, they may have special interests with certain things or topics.  Finally, they may experience sensory issues which is why you see or hear things about sensory autism.

Furthermore, some people with autism have more difficulty with some aspects of daily life.  Some autistic people have more differences. In conclusion, every person with autism is unique.  Just like everyone else.

Diverse group of students walking in school down staircase.

Types of autism

Previously, autism was divided into different types. However, autism is now called autism spectrum disorder.  Think of it as autism spectrum differences. Furthermore, all the types are together.  “Spectrum” means that there is a range of differences. Although people with autism have many things in common, each person with autism is unique.

The previous different types of autism were: autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, or pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and childhood disintegrative disorder.  Now, they are grouped together into autism spectrum disorder

Old words used to describe autism.

To help with all of the vocabularies that you might see and hear, these are many of the words used in the past to describe autism:

  • Autistic disorder, autism, childhood autism, early infantile autism, Kanner’s syndrome, infantile psychosis.
  • Asperger’s, Asperger syndrome, Asperger Disorder, High functioning autism.
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder (Not Otherwise Specified) sometimes abbreviated to PDD (NOS) also called atypical autism.
  • Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, also known as Heller’s syndrome, disintegrative psychosis, regressive autism.

Rett’s Disorder.

Is Rett’s Disorder related to autism?  No, it is not.  It was grouped with autism in the past but no longer is.  Therefore, Rett’s Disorder is separate and distinct from autism.

A summary of what you need to know about the types of autism.

  • Autism is now called autism spectrum disorder.
  • Spectrum means that there is a range of differences experiences by people with autism.
  • Autism is no longer formally divided into types. Although many autistic people continue to identify with different types of autism. Respect how people identify and how they like to be identified.
  • Disorder means that the differences caused by autism happen in daily life.
  • Autism has a range of differences.  While some people experience fewer differences, other people experience more differences. Each person with autism is unique.

Sensory autism is not a type of autism.

Furthermore, sensory autism was never one of the types, although it is a term used. Nonetheless, it is important to know that sensory differences are often part of autism. In fact, the diagnostic criteria for autism include mention of two sensory impairments.  Specifically, hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. However, not all people with autism have one of these two types of sensory issues.  In addition, sensory issues are more complex than just these two. So, let’s dive into sensory autism.  

Infographic defining hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity.

As with autism, there are many different words to describe sensory.  Furthermore, there are more than five senses.  Those five senses are what you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. However, you have more than five senses.  The less known sense include your sense of movement (called proprioception), your sense of balance (called your vestibular sense) and your sense of internal organs (called interoception).  Examples of interoception include your sense of hunger, thirst, or the need to go to the toilet.

For more information on sensory sensitivities and autism, check out Raising Children’s blog post.

Group of students sitting on concrete floor looking at cellphones.

Sensory autism definitions:


  • Over-responsive, responds too much to sensory input.  i.e. jerks away from a pat on the back.


  • Under-responsive, responds too little to sensory input. i.e. is not aware of bumping into something.

Sensory avoider

  • Avoids sensory input or experiences. i.e. someone who does not like noisy, busy, bright places.

Sensory differences

  • The brain has difficulty in daily life and does not receive information from the senses well.  Nor does it interpret or respond to the senses well.

Sensory craving.

  • Craves sensory input or experiences and seeks out sensory-rich environments.

Sensory defensive

  • Also called sensory defensiveness.  Avoids certain sensory input and has a negative reaction to some senses or sensory input.

Sensory differences

  • Similar to challenges.  The brain has difficulty in daily life and it does not receive information from the senses well.  Nor does it interpret or respond to the senses well.

Sensory discrimination 

  • The ability to tell the difference between one sense and another, and within one sense.  e.g., know if something is smooth or rough by touch.

Sensory disorder

  • Like sensory processing disorder or sensory integration disorder, the brain has difficulty in daily life.   Sensory processing disorder is often shortened in layman’s terms to sensory disorder.  There are several different types of sensory disorders.  They include sensory modulation, sensory-motor, and sensory discrimination.


  • Describes a place or event where noise levels are less.  In addition, bright lights are less.  Moreover, a sensory-friendly environment is generally more comfortable, in particular for people with sensory issues.  Also, interchanged with the phrases sensory relaxed and sensory inclusive. 

For more information on the relationship and difference between autism and sensory processing disorders, consider reviewing, Sensory Processing in Autism by Robertson and Baron-Cohen (2017) 1.  

Key points to remember about sensory autism

  • Sensory autism is not a type of autism.
  • Autism is a range or spectrum disorder.
  • Hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity may be included.
  • Autism may include a sensory disorder.
  • Sensory disorders include more than hypersensitivity or hypersensitivity.

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  1. Robertson, C. E., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2017). Sensory Perception in Autism. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 18(11), 671–684. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn.2017.112
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