Sensory Processing Disorder

What Does Sensory Processing Disorder Look Like in Adults?

Adults with SPD feel assaulted by the world and all of its ticking clocks, buzzing lights, and strong perfumes. If everyday sounds and textures feel unbearably distracting, read on to learn about the signs and symptoms of this very real condition.

A man with hypersensitivity covers his eyes.
A man with hypersensitivity covers his eyes.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) manifests in many small, sometimes maddening ways. Itchy tags may be unbearable. Loud music intolerable. Perfume simply sickening. Whatever the specific symptoms, SPD makes it difficult to interact with your daily environment. This impacts how you relate to others, study and learn, participate in sports and group activities, and follow your dreams. It is a unique and challenging neurological condition associated with inefficient processing of sensory information, and it deserves serious support.

SPD disrupts how the brain — the top of the central nervous system — takes in, organizes, and uses the messages received through our body’s receptors. We take in sensory information through our eyes, ears, muscles, joints, skin and inner ears, and we use those sensations – we integrate them, modulate them, analyze them and interpret them — for immediate and appropriate everyday functioning.

For example, you hear a truck rumbling down the road as you’re standing poised to cross the street, and that noise tells you, “Jump back.” You don’t think about it, you just react instinctively, if all is going well. But sometimes with SPD, that processing falters. For people with SPD, external and internal sensory stimuli can cause signals to misfire — and problems in movement, emotions, and relationships to manifest.

Adults with SPD may exhibit the following signs:

  • Feeling that a shade is pulled over the outside world
  • Experiencing muted sights, sounds, and touch
  • Frequent feelings of sensory overload

SPD can complicate everything from getting dressed to eating to grooming — and that’s just the before leaving for work. The following are common triggers for discomfort:

  • Hair brushing
  • Tight clothes or coarse fabric
  • Loud noises such as fireworks or thunder
  • Bright lights like camera flashes, sunshine, or strobes
  • Strong odors including perfume or scented detergent
  • Swimming in lakes
  • Sticky fingers
  • Tags on clothes
  • Being touched or hugged
  • Wearing shoes
  • Tart or bitter foods

If you are hypersensitive to the point that it interferes with your functioning, you may have SPD. Many adults describe the feeling as being assaulted, attacked, or invaded by everyday experiences. They are bothered by sounds or textures that most people don’t hear or feel. These experiences can become physically and emotionally unbearable and extremely distracting. Even loose hair on their neck or wrinkles in the sheets can be a source of agitation.

Symptoms at Home

You’ve always hated thunderstorms. You don’t own a single wool hat. These and other common manifestations of SPD may be apparent at home:

  • Caftans are your favorite article of clothing – anything that’s loose and breezy.
  • During thunderstorms, you put on your sound cancelling headphones and zone out until it’s over. The loud noise is too much.
  • While you love a dip in the pool, the mud and sand of lakes ruins the fun of swimming for you.
  • Even though you love your significant other, you hate when he gives you big bear hugs.
  • You avoid group family photos at the holidays. The bright flashes set you off.
  • At the mall, you avoid walking through the perfume department at all costs.
  • Even when exhausted, you can’t stomach coffee. It’s too bitter.
  • Sometimes the texture of food is so repulsive, you have to spit it out.

Symptoms at Work

These or similar manifestations of SPD may be apparent at work:

  • When your co-worker plays music at her desk, you’re always asking, “Can you turn down the volume?”
  • You’d rather go hungry than eat a mushy banana while working through lunch.
  • Giving presentations is your worst nightmare. No matter how much you practice, you stumble over the words.
  • When the fluorescent light bulbs start to flicker, you are always the first person to call the office superintendent. The flashing light makes you instantly nauseous.
  • Instead of writing Post-It notes, you type your to-do lists. You can’t even read your own writing.
  • Being in a crowded elevator with more than four people makes you want to break out and run.

If you experience these or similar symptoms for SPD, consult a doctor or mental-health professional for a formal assessment.

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