What It's Like Having Sensory Processing Disorder as a Teen


I have sensory processing disorder. That means my brain processes sensory input differently, which can be very overwhelming at times. When I get too much sensory input I do what is called stimming — self-regulatory behavior such as rocking, humming, or hand flapping. People with sensory disorders do this to provide output to block out input. Because of my sensory issues, I cannot cope with as much as most people can. Sometimes just picking clothes to wear in the morning is a struggle because things won’t feel right. If I’m forced to wear something I can’t handle, I can handle even less because I am using so much energy to not freak out about my clothes. Sometimes eating can be a struggle because the textures and smells can become too much, making me feel sick to my stomach at times. Sometimes sitting in class can be hard. The brightness and noise (yes, lights make noise) of the lighting, the coolness in the room, the amount of people, and conversations are a lot to take in.

There are things that can help me regulate myself

Rocking helps me. Deep pressure helps me — getting under my weighted blanket and sometimes other blankets on top of that. Going to a dark and quiet area or taking a nap helps too. I try to seem “normal” and cope as much as I can, but that often leaves me a mess and it takes days to recover. I try to do things like go to concerts with my friends, and it takes me a week to be able to handle things normally again. I try to push myself and stay through the entire class even though I know I am overwhelmed, and then end up melting down after and missing my next class.

My sensory issues aren’t debilitating, because as I have gotten older I have learned to cope better. I know my triggers and how to calm myself down when overwhelmed. There is this idea that these things go away when you become an adult, but I can say as I am about to turn 18 that it doesn’t. Kids that have sensory issues become adults that have sensory issues.

Sensory meltdowns vs. sensory shutdowns

When overstimulated I can react in two different ways: sensory meltdowns (also called autism meltdowns) and sensory shutdowns. This is how they look for me:

Sensory meltdowns — inconsolably crying, whining sounds, rocking, mood swings, screaming, humming, scratching, hyperventilating.

Sensory shutdown — lack of emotion, stiff movements (almost robotic), no eye contact, no speaking, laying under a blanket in the dark and silent for hours or even days on end.

Meltdown vs. tantrums

A common issue for children with autism and sensory processing disorder is that people may see their meltdowns as tantrums and attention seeking behaviors.

Individuals having meltdowns aren’t: goal oriented, looking for a reaction out of you, communicating what they need or want, aware of their own safety, in control of their behavior, able to calm down once issue is resolved.

Meltdowns are a sign that: they need a break, the child is overwhelmed, they’re dealing with tiredness, hunger, illness, or pain, they’re in need of sensory regulation, they’re needing to regain control.

What my sensory processing disorder means and doesn’t mean for me

Yes, I have sensory processing disorder. In a sense it somewhat limits me, but it doesn’t mean I can’t do things on my own. Now I am older, I know my limits and I know when things are too much and I need a break. I have spent my life being limited by other people because of my diagnosis, which helped as a child when I couldn’t really communicate my needs and wants, but now it just makes me feel like I am less than.

My sensory processing disorder doesn’t mean I have to be held back

This is a point I cannot emphasize enough! I have heard many time, and still sometimes hear that I should be held back in life because of my diagnosis. For me, this is so far from the truth. I was given the opportunity and I did 11th and 12th grade together while taking a college course and I graduated from high school at barely 17 years old. I was accepted into Simpson University at 16 years old. I say this because if given the opportunity, we can thrive and soar. Sometimes we need things done a little differently because we can get overwhelmed, but if our needs are met we can be very successful. Do not think of people with sensory processing disorder as less than, because we are not. We can thrive just like everyone else. Sometimes we just need a little extra patience and help.

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Thinkstock photo by Veranika Smirnaya.

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