I Don't Judge My Sensory Processing Disorder
If you are a parent of a child with sensory processing disorder, this article might help you. That being said, this piece is not just for you. It is also for the adults out there who have always struggled with regulating their senses, both diagnosed and undiagnosed with sensory issues, also known as sensory processing disorder (SPD). It can also be for those out there who have never heard of sensory processing challenges and came across my writing by happenstance, but are suddenly intrigued to learn more.
SPD can occur on its own or in conjunction with autism, ADHD, OCD, or Tourette’s syndrome, among others. It can range on a spectrum, much like other conditions.
Also, I am not a professional by any means, simply an adult in their 20s who discovered that they have had the condition in recent years. I have done research on it since, and the rest is based on my personal experience.
I have always been labeled as “quirky” and a bit “hyper” and “spacey” as well. I was 10 weeks premature back in the 90s, spending the first six weeks of my life in the NICU. I will never know for sure if that contributed to my developing sensory processing disorder, OCD, learning difficulties, ADHD, and autistic traits, or if they came about for another reason. That being said, there is indeed a correlation between prematurity/low birth weight with conditions like sensory processing disorder, ADHD, and autism.
So, what is actually having SPD like? Well, I can only truly speak for myself so here goes:
For me and many others with sensory-related needs and challenges, SPD manifests as a mixture of being overwhelmed by the world as well as underwhelmed. This can lead one to be sensory defensive (wanting to avoid and dampen the sensory overload) as well as, at other times, to be sensory seeking (craving certain senses and needing to touch/taste/smell/etc, even at inappropriate times).
SPD can also show up in the form of dyspraxia; this is when a child has developmental delays in coordination, including fine and gross motor skills, that go on through adulthood. They are often clumsy.
My sensory processing disorder specifically involves all of the above. The presentation has also changed over the years as I have grown from infancy to childhood up to teen-hood and now well into my adulthood at 27 years old.
I would say at this time in my life I am more of a sensory seeker. I keep boxes and pouches of fidget toys all around the house, in my car, and in my purse. I do this so I don’t pick my skin or do anything harmful as a means of releasing my craving for tactile sensation.
I love to smell candles for hours and yet the smell of perfume nauseates me.
I can stare at abstract art for long periods of time, having trouble shifting my attention away, and yet I struggle with visual-spatial processing, such as reading maps and parking my car.
I am on edge by the tiniest of sounds, disrupting any sense of focus, and yet certain words jumble together for me, causing me to repeatedly say, what?
I feel nauseous during blood draws and yet the pain of a tattoo is something I crave, an exhilarating thrill for me.
I bump into walls and struggle to tie my shoes; I have never been one for sports, aside from distance running where I allow pure anxious adrenaline to take over.
Ever since childhood, I have struggled to go barefoot. I need to wear socks the majority of the time in order to feel comfortable. The tags in my t-shirt are often too itchy; I typically rip them out.
The feeling of sweat is gross to me and so is brushing my teeth.
I fidget and need to get up often during work (although my ADHD medication does help with this part, so there certainly is an overlap between disorders). I am restless and yet often lethargic and fatigued.
Loud sounds, crowds, and noisy bars are overwhelming to me. And yet I blast music in the car at an abnormally high volume.
I gag at the dentist and feel sensory overload at the grocery store. At the same time, I love spinning and swinging and rolling down hills.
I have always been a pen chewer and pen clicker in class; meanwhile, the sounds of fellow classmates clicking their own pens sends me over the edge.
I need a 25-lb, fuzzy blanket to sleep soundly. The extra weight and pressure are soothing to my busy, sensory-overloaded mind.
Sleep disorders, executive function issues, depression, anxiety, and eating disorders are also common with SPD. I can raise my hand and say I have challenges with all of the above, but my point here is that this is how SPD looks for me. Someone else may also have the same diagnosis, and yet their presentation may appear differently.
For me, what’s most important I’ve learned in acknowledging my SPD is allowing myself to sensory seek when I need to (such as with fidget toys or smelling nice candles, etc.) or to bring myself to quiet calm places, weighted blankets possibly included, when I need to decompress from sensory overload. I do not force myself to go to bars and nightclubs (especially now, thanks COVID!) and I even sometimes wear socks and sneakers to the beach. I may get the occasional odd look, but the cool thing about being an adult is that I have the power to decide what makes me feel best.
I choose to meet myself where I am at, with minimal judgment.
I hope that this article either made someone feel less alone, or on the flip side, taught somebody something new. Just remember that everyone out there is going through some kind of struggle; many of us with sensory processing disorder struggle with our mental health, our ability to learn, socialize, and complete day-to-day tasks — so be kind.
Getty image by Creative-Family