Sensory Processing Disorder

What Does Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) Look Like in Adults?

Adults with Sensory Processing Disorder 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 SPD in adults.

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 disorder 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.

[Self-Test: Could You Have SPD?]

Adults with SPD disorder 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.

[SPD Disorder: Sensory Processing Malfunctions in Adults]

SPD 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.

SPD 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.

[“The World Drives Me Crazy.”]

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

12 Related Links

  1. Certain textures especially gritty, cause an extremely negative reaction in me. I cant have a manicure because of the grit caused by filing my nails. I cant touch a potato. Cant have dirt on my hands. Loud noises bother me and more than two sounds drive me crazy. Disorder and lots of movement cause me a panic reaction.

    1. I am so glad to find out I am not alone. I never even knew of this disorder. I have extreme difficulties with taking a shower, having my hands or feet dirty. Sand in between my toes, wooden popsicle sticks and so much more. I was previously diagnosed with Severe Panic Disorder and PTSD. But the more I am reading the more I think I may have SPD. Because the treatments for the other things have not worked and I have been dealing with this since I 12 yrs. old. I see my psychologist next week and am going to talk to him about it.

  2. I can’t stand being touched or the sound of someone scratching themselves. If the radio is turned down so that the staticky underpinning sound is more prevalent than the actual music, I can’t concentrate on the music or any of the sound around me. Sometimes sounds, smells, or touch affect me so much I feel like I’m going to throw up or I get a migraine. I didn’t realize so many other people understood and I’m kind of crying right now because there’s research and I’m not alone.

  3. This article sheds light on an important topic that I suspect plagues many walks of life. I was encouraged to read about the impact of perception and relationships, this can interfere from fun and the outward relationship ie the couple as a thing in its own right with its own needs. The sense of being overwhelmed can be temporarily “distracting” indeed.

    The list of possible sensitivities might seem like a small representation. I would say I know one kid in treatment who demonstrates 3-5 of these but also imagine if you were susceptible to even ONE of these, it could easily contribute to a sense of disquiet and/or loss of enjoyment from what your friends don’t mind at all to do, We can end up not liking eating in a restaurant or being on an airplane which can be a further inconvenience.

    Frustration is understandable and can even be embraced – use it as energy! Also I have seen this with my “high achieving” friends, one or two of these items (coffee, loud music etc.) can be attractors and/or mitigating factors. I believe in a multipronged yet focused response which often ends up helping. Understood “help” is not inexpensive, perhaps network with your friends – you might be surprised how many people are either in, or even giving treatment!

  4. I never knew why I was doing what I was doing. Running sharp folded or twisted paper and plastic under my fingernails to create a sensation that was in itself “addicting”. It started when I was about 5. I fidgeted with a crocheted blanket my mom made, later on it developed into anything with a corner, like clothing, blankets, pillow tags. I’d stim the hell out of paper it would vaporize into dust or if go so hard for so long my fingertips would start to bleed. Even then! I still continued. 20 years later and I just happen to Google my fidgeting habits to see what I could find and stimming was exactly it. I hated calling it “fidgeting”, now I have a more misunderstanding and unknown name for what I do. My twin does it as well but not to the same level I do. It’s such a burden or curse, in my opinion, it gets in the way of my life!! It’s constant, annoying, makes people wonder wtf I’m doing. Ultimately it makes me feel like an adolescent!!! My social anxiety keeps the stim addiction strong. Xanax….or just wear gloves the rest of my life. Anyways thanx for reading lol. 🙂

  5. I STIMULATE SEEK, I think is what it’s called. But I can’t stand sudden car horn honks, sneezing, coughs, or even notification pings, they cause my to rush with anxiety more then I already am. Stimming helps but is only beneficial when I’m trying to concentrate. It’s so addicting to feel the sensation that it holds me back from school work. My mind needs to focus on the sensation of stimming and when I’m not stimming it eats at me. Like an annoying presence that keeps telling me to do it, almost forcing me, it’s hard to fight the urge. Same goes for my urges to want to yell, yell anything. My compulsive need to throw verbal energy out of my mouth hole. It’s hard to control but I realize sudden blurting in public is frowned upon so I fight myself to shut up.

    I know I have ADD but can I also have a slight form of ADHD? It’s not TS because ive experimented with tourettes medication and I’m allergic.

    Do you think an anti anxiety med and also an ADHD med would be beneficial as a combo? Calming my anxiety to stim far less and something like adderall to control my urges of outbursting compulsive behavior?

  6. I don’t think it’s a disorder but some internal biological factor that makes things aversive. Some kind of chemical or bacterial imbalance in the gut and how closely your gut is linked to your brain and nervous system.

  7. Wow! Been researching this for a while and I’m pretty sure this is what I have. I stumbled across this disorder as I was reading about autism because one of my cousins has it. I always kind of wondered in my life if I had autism because of some of my symptoms, but they were all sensory symptoms. Except for the fact that I rock back and forth and have done it my entire life. I am now 24.
    I am a woman and I don’t have autism. But I think I have this.
    My symptoms recently in life have gotten worse and worse. It might be due to the fact I have had extreme stresses or because it just gets worse when you get older.
    Here are my specific symptoms.
    First and biggest reaction I have is to texture. My WORST trigger is cotton and cotton balls. Even thinking about it now sends horrible shivers and makes me want to grind my teeth. I can hear cotton squeaking between my teeth when I look at it or feel it. I also hate touching it because it catches on my skin and I can’t describe why I hate that so much but it drives me crazy. If I ever have to touch cotton or pull it out of a vitamin bottle I have to ask someone else to do this.
    When I sleep in bed and certain blankets or sheets catch against my feet even when they aren’t that scratchy it sends me through the roof and I can’t explain why. It makes me want to scream and I have a reaction where I have to kick my legs to get the feeling off of me. I have a lot of reactions where I have to thrash my body to get the feeling or trigger off of me.
    My ex boyfriend used to do things that drove me insane that wouldn’t bother anyone else. It seemed whenever he touched my arms he would do it way too soft and drag his fingers across just barely touching me and it actually felt painful like a burning sensation. When he would go in to kiss me sometimes he would go in very very slowly like a sloth and I could feel his breath and it angered me.
    Certain clothing that didn’t feel itchy to others always did to me. And if I ever had it on it was all I could feel. I can’t even wear jeans anymore because it is too rough and tight which is one of my favorite clothing item.
    That whole swimming in lakes thing has been with me my whole life. Touching the bottom of lakes with my feet lives in my nightmares. I tried once when I was little to wear shoes, it helped but it still kept me from getting in.
    Hearing: fireworks and loud booms never really bothered me. It’s constant loud noise that bothers me. I can’t think like when music is up really high. But I have been told that I ask for the volume to go down when it’s not loud at all. It really depends on the situation though. If I am in a good mood when I’m alone I love listening to loud music. But I can’t stand it when other people are around or I need to actively think about something.
    The only other thing I can think of is hearing people chew on food with their mouth closed and you can tell their mouth is full of saliva. Someone smacking on gum doesn’t bother me, but when I can hear the saliva in their mouth I get so angry I either have to leave or close my ears because I know it’s ridiculous to ask them to stop eating. I am generally not an angry person at all. I am one of the most calm people and laid back, it takes a lot for someone to get me angry. But when I hear saliva in someone’s mouth it’s like a beast of hatred awakens in me.
    Certain lighting makes my eyes hurt. But not bright lights. I actually like bright lights and well lit rooms. But certain lights that are dim and yellow really annoy me enough for me to leave the room. If I have to stay in the room all I can think about is turning it off. Or waiting for the moment when I am allowed to turn it off.
    Flashing doesn’t bother me.
    Now for all of these issues I seem to have an opposite to each. Like certain clothing I love the feel of and literally want to live in it. I love certain textures way more than I should. Certain noises give me chills in an amazing way. It feels so good that I can’t move or focus on something I need to. I believe we call this the ASMR. Thus reaction happens way way less than the negative ones. These negative sensory responses happen throughout my day because there are so many things. And I’ll have a positive response maybe once a week at MOST. That’s being generous. Sometimes the way a person will touch me on the arm will be really positive and it’s usually a firm touch.
    So this is kind of my experience in my life and now that I can put a name to it maybe it’s something I can fix with help.
    One day I got so frustrated with my negative responses to textures that I decided to expose myself to it purposefully constantly, thinking eventually the effect would be less and less. As much as I hated it, i used cotton for this. I repeatedly touched it and thought about it throughout my day. The way it feels, that squeaky sound. Over and over. It didn’t make any difference. My response to it was as intense every single time. That was a horrible day for me.

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