Learning to Honor My Sensory Needs as a Person With Dyspraxia


In the past when my friends talked about jet-setting to Europe by themselves, I instantly became jealous for two reasons: one; I lived on disability and couldn’t afford to go anywhere — and two; I felt overwhelmed by just taking the bus in my city. This is because I have dyspraxia,  a neurological disorder that makes doing everyday things twice as difficult. For example, even though I’m fortunate to be supported by disability insurance and work from home, I often feel paralyzed by the steps it takes to do simple tasks  like freshening up, putting together a meal and starting what’s on my to-do-list. I’m not depressed or lazy  —  it’s just that my brain seems to get its wires crossed. But you would hardly know this about me as I write freelance for various publications, run an international magazine and have a loud social media presence.

Depending on who you talk to, having dyspraxia means I’m on the autism spectrum  —  and whenever I talk to people who are also on the spectrum, I can’t believe how much I feel like I fit in. Like many other people who aren’t neurotypical, I become exhausted and irritable from too much outside stimuli, like having people around me or trying to make conversation with music on. I’m also not great at picking up on social cues or understanding when someone’s being sarcastic ;  I use facial expressions to sometimes determine jokes and pretend I understand them. However, being on the spectrum makes me dive into what I love, so even though I’m terrible at school, I’m pretty good at writing and communications. This allows me to work around my social anxiety, leading some people to believe I’m an extrovert.

Because I had trouble making friends when I was growing up, I threw myself into learning how relationships work by analyzing and writing about them  —  and by now I’ve dated my fair share of people and have a number of friends. However, lately I’ve begun to realize that even though I can hide things like exhaustion and irritability by staying out for shorter periods of time, the closer I get to people the more I have to be upfront about what I need. For example, I love my partner and enjoy being around him as much as possible  —  but as a person with sensory sensitivities, my body says otherwise. If I don’t have enough time to myself without outside stimuli, I start to become burnt out and snap at him. If you’re like me, you’ve tried to avoid getting close to others because you felt it was necessary for you to keep them in your life  —  but actually, the only way to have fulfilling relationships is to let others in.

My relationship with my partner works well because we live separately and are both ambitious in our careers,  and this gives me the space to recharge between seeing him. While we established early on that we didn’t want to be monogamous, get married or have kids, we never had a conversation about how much alone time we needed. It just didn’t seem like something people talked about. So when I agreed to go on vacation together for a week, I was a little worried about the length of the trip,  but I didn’t want to protest too much because I wanted to make him happy. What followed was multiple breakdowns on my end because I was exhausted from commuting, planning, a change of routine  —  and yes, not having enough time away from outside stimuli. I felt anxious most of the trip because I needed time to myself, and I felt guilty about telling him that ,  which only made my anxiety worse. While I usually find everything about him attractive, the less time alone I had the more everything about him began to irritate me. Although it still turned out to be a romantic trip, our vacation became a learning experience about boundaries and compromise. I realized that I needed my own space, but we had booked a room together so we worked on taking some time apart to do things we both enjoyed,  such as going to the gym, checking Facebook and freshening up alone.

It wasn’t until looking into solo polyamory I realized I don’t have to feel guilty for having separate needs from my partner. Solo polyamory is the idea that people are autonomous beings who have different needs and wants, and alongside good communication and mutual respect between all partners, no one puts rules on each other because no one owns one another. There’s this expectation in mainstream society that if you’re a couple you should want to be together most of the time . But with solo polyamory, partners respect how much time you can set aside to see them based on work, hobbies and other people who are important to you. There’s no pressure to converge lives the longer you’re dating because with solo polyamory, commitment and time together aren’t seen as mutually exclusive. In a solo polyamory group I recently joined on Facebook, I found a thread where a number of people on the spectrum talked about how finding solo polyamory has helped them work through their sensory sensitivities without feeling like there’s something wrong with them. If they need to leave a date because they’ve had too much stimuli for the day, their partners understand because they’ve had those essential conversations on what each other needs as individuals.

Since our vacation, my partner and I have talked about what I need to go on another trip together and feel well: A shorter time away, him planning activities without me and  if we go for a longer period , possibly my own room. While having my own space on vacation with my partner can seem controversial in a society where being part of a couple is more respected than being autonomous, I’ve discovered that no one is going to advocate for my needs except for me. In order to feel physically well, some people need to take medication. No one argues with that. Well, in order to feel mentally well, most of the time I need my own space to unwind, uninterrupted sleep in my own bed and to not feel obliged to take care of anyone else between activities. While I deeply care for my partner and will always be open to compromise, it’s not wrong to say that my needs come first  —  because I wouldn’t expect anything less for his needs as well.

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Thinkstock photo by Ingram Publishing.

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