Sensory Processing Disorder

Why You Feel Too Much (and How to Cope)

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. Here are strategies for living better with SPD.

A child with Sensory Processing Disorder plugs her sensitive ears because the sound is too loud.
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Could You Have SPD?

Do you avoid hugs? Or crave deep-tissue pressure? Do you flee from busy, crowded parties? Or wiggling all day long? Are amusement-park rides your worst nightmare? Or do your friends call you Evel Knievel? Do you find that you are a little clumsy getting dressed? Or a lot clumsy?

These sometimes contradictory symptoms are all signs of sensory processing problems.

Flossing your teeth. Parallel parking. Picking out clothes. These everyday tasks are challenging for people with SPD.

Do you have low stamina? Struggle with self-esteem? Are your relationships with others rocky?

How about paying attention, even when you’re keenly interested in what you’re thinking or talking about? All of these could be characteristics of a person with ADHD, SPD, or a combination of the two. Keep reading to learn more.

[Free Download: Are Your Senses in Overdrive?]

Young woman smelling lavendar, eyes closed, close-up
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What is SPD?

SPD disrupts how the brain — the top of the central nervous system — takes in, organizes, and uses the messages that we get through our body’s receptors for everyday functioning. 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 rumbling of the truck 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, sensory stimuli from our own bodies and from our environment can cause signals to misfire — and problems in movement, emotions, relationships, tension and adaptations to the signals that we’re constantly receiving.

sensory processing disorder and hypersensitivity are common in people with ADHD
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Who Gets SPD?

Anyone can have SPD — people of all ages, males and females, and people of all races. This is a very egalitarian condition.

Additionally, the autism expert Temple Grandin says that all people on the autism spectrum have SPD and sensory challenges.

ADHD and SPD have fidgetiness and inattention in common. The big difference: If you take away the sensory overload of an itchy tag or a humming florescent bulb, the behavior changes for a person with SPD. For a person with ADHD, it does not.

SPD may occur on its own, or alongside ADHD and/or autism.

[Common Questions About Sensory Processing Disorder]

rear view of a woman with SPD choosing a dress in a clothing store
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How SPD Impacts Daily Life

SPD makes daily life more difficult in a million little ways that a person without the condition might never imagine. In my book, The Out-of-Sync Child Grows Up: Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder in the Adolescent and Young Adult Years, I capture personal accounts of it's impact. These are a few examples.

Getting Dressed
Finding the right clothes is overwhelming. Some people with SPD wear the same clothes in different colors, repeating the same outfit every day once they find one that works. Some people like to wear extremely loose-fitting or minimal clothing.

Eating
The texture, the temperature, the look, the way it sounds when chewing it, the taste of it, and the smell of it — people with SPD may face any or all of these food-related issues. All of the senses get involved in eating, and if you have an issue with any of them, it can affect every meal.

Leaving Home
Many people with SPD talk about the difficulty of leaving the peace and sanctity of their homes to go out into the wild, wild world. Going to school and to work takes courage and stamina.

Toothbrush and toothpaste in the bathroom close up.
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Grooming

My book features an account from Dan T. about problems with bathing, brushing his teeth, and combing his hair: “In recent years, I have started to really get to the root of my SPD-related problems with my occupational therapist. My tactile system has been rewired to become much more tolerant of many of the touch sensations I encounter in daily life... And yet, even after my nervous system became more relaxed to these sensations, my mind was still psychologically hard-wired to avoid them. I had to spend time working on removing my beliefs that these forms of tactile stimuli would still be painful.

"When I accomplished that, I was finally able to do the things I once could never bear. I have finally gotten to a place where brushing my teeth won’t send me over the edge. I am also able to appreciate a daily shower. Even if I never truly enjoy these things, being able to do them without them wreaking havoc on me and sending me into a state of overload has been amazing.”

[“The World Drives Me Crazy.”]

A woman with ADHD asleep in bed who has trouble waking up in the morning
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Sleeping

My book includes a story from Shonda L., who has always had trouble sleeping because of her auditory over-responsivity. Overstimulated, she couldn’t sleep. Under-stimulated, she could sleep forever.

“What is sleep like for a teenager with SPD? For me, it was a mixed bag. When I was over-stimulated, there was no sleeping. Other nights, when I was in an under-responsive cycle, I was able to sleep for what felt like days, and I could fall asleep anywhere. Sometimes it felt like I couldn’t get enough sleep, no matter how early I went to bed or what time I got up.

"There were also nights, though, that I couldn’t fall asleep under any circumstance. It felt like I had bugs crawling on my skin, and if my blanket touched me, it actually hurt. Those nights, nothing helped. So I would just have to suffer until the next night and hope to be so tired I could sleep through the buggy feeling.

"I became a sheet snob. I had to have 100% cotton sheets and the higher the thread count, the better. I still sleep under a heavy comforter, even in the middle of a hot and sticky summer. The heat doesn’t matter; I need the heaviness to be comfortable.”

Depressed asian man on the bed.
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Relationships

SPD also affects dating, kissing, and beyond. This quote from a gentleman named Paul B. reflects on his feelings of shame and inadequacy as a man.

“Growing up, I never talked to anyone about my condition. I did not know how. It just became part of who I was. It did not make sense to me, so how could I bring it up? SPD became my hidden secret. Even I find my condition very strange today. I know that most people will never understand, and some will even make fun of my condition. This has happened as I grew and as I shared some details about it. It is so hurtful when someone mocks something that is so painful to me...

"Growing to manhood was difficult... due to low self-esteem caused by the shame of having a sensory condition. It was painful to be around men in most situations. I felt weak, not masculine enough, because I felt pain from normal, everyday sights and sounds. I felt unworthy. I could not fit in. I was so lost growing up, trying to become a man in all the wrong ways. I was very wild as a teenager, always trying to run away from things. I found equally wild boys, and we would do crazy things.”

a man with SPD holds shopping bags in his hand
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Developing a Sensory Lifestyle

Occupational therapy using a sensory integration approach (OT-SI) is the best way to treat SPD. It focuses on developing a sensory lifestyle that makes SPD easier to manage in day-to-day life, including enhancements in three areas: arousing, organizing, and calming.

Arousing is getting going to start the day. It is different for everyone – it could be a hot shower, or a cold bath, or jumping on a trampoline, or wrapping yourself tight in a TheraBand, or chewing something crunchy like granola. Organizing is figuring out ways to stop, recenter, and manage school/work. This might include stacking papers in order, or running your hand through a bucket of kidney beans or sand. Calming is regulating oneself throughout the day, and might include yoga or massage.

An OT can provide activities to do at home and on the job that will help. They often include heavy work activities like washing the car, shoveling, or carrying heavy bags of groceries that teens and adults can incorporate into daily life.

woman with SPD running in beautiful park with green grass
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Treating SPD

OT-SI can help people with SPD improve everyday life skills, including:

  • How you touch and are touched
  • How you move/are moved
  • Bilateral coordination (using both sides of the body together)
  • Eye motor skills (how you read/watch a ball coming towards you)

OT-SI can also improve self-esteem, social participation, and organizational skills at work and in school.

For people who experience understimulation, intense activities can help: running, swimming hard, jumping on a trampoline, martial arts. Vigorous body work in activities that require no interpersonal contact are great alternative therapies. For people who are easily overstimulated, reading, listening to music, stroking a cat, or gardening can help.

Close-up of psychiatrist hands in those of patient with SPD
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Finding the Right Therapy

Additional therapies can make a difference:

  • Physical therapy using a sensory integration approach (PT-SI).
  • Vision therapy to help eye motor skills for people who have trouble reading, merging into traffic, parallel parking,
    writing figures.
  • Listening therapy for people with auditory issues. You wear headphones and listen to music while you do motor tasks like walk on a balance beam or throw bean bags into baskets.
  • Psychotherapy for people who have developed mood disorders or self-esteem problems because of SPD.
  • Speech and language therapy.

Make sure you find a therapist with training in sensory integration. Use the registry at www.spdstar.org to find someone in your area. Many doctors don’t know about SPD, and may poo-poo the condition.

A man with SPD climbs a mountain
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Don't Lose Hope!

Many people take pride in how SPD makes them more sensitive and able to face adversity. They develop perseverance, and become goal-oriented. I like to call this extrasensory grace. With persistence, you can too!

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