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How I Manage Sensory Processing Disorder

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As an autistic person, sensory processing disorder, or SPD for short, is a big part of my daily life.

What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory processing disorder means that your senses don’t work in the same way that other people’s do, and it can be distressing. We have seven senses: sight, touch, smell, taste, hearing, vestibular, and proprioception. While you may be familiar with the first five, not many people know about vestibular and proprioception senses.

Your vestibular sense helps your body understand where it physically is in the world. It helps you hit a ball with a bat, stand a polite distance away from someone in an elevator, and know how much pressure you need to break an egg.

Proprioception lets you know what’s going on inside your body. Are you hungry or too full? Maybe you feel sleepy, or have had too much coffee.

Sensory processing disorder means that you may have senses that are too sensitive (hypersensitive) or under-sensitive (hyposensitive). Everyone experiences their senses at different sensitivities. But for people with SPD, their sensory perception of the world can cause daily issues.

What Sensory Processing Disorder Looks Like for Me

I love singing and dancing to loud music, but I can’t cope with complex sounds, such as in a cafe where there is a mixture of talking, chairs scraping across floors, banging coffee tampers, and screeching milk steamers. I can’t put all this information into one general cafe background noise like neurotypical people can, I hear all the sounds individually and can’t push them to the back of my mind. This can be great if I’m in nature — I can pick up on the leaves blowing in the wind, birds singing, and waterfalls flowing in a really vivid way.

I love to be bear-hugged and get deep pressure massage, but I can’t stand being tapped on the arm when someone is chatting with me or given a light “polite” hug. I also only like to be hugged by people who are bigger than me! (Sitting next to them is really great too.)

I love aromatherapy and natural smells, but I can’t bear deodorant being sprayed in a room, pollution on the street, or worst of all — air freshener.

Throw in not being able to sleep without medication because I never feel sleepy, having to set reminders to eat because I never feel hungry, and not being sure if I really need to pee or just need to pee a bit (which means I go to the bathroom about five times a night — just in case) and you can see how living with SPD affects pretty much every part of every day.

Getting overstimulated looks like:

Being exposed to too much loud noise, bad smells, and bright lights makes me feel overstimulated. Which essentially, means that I’m stressed. I get tetchy, short-tempered, and close to an autistic meltdown or shutdown. I’m lucky that a busy shopping center won’t push me to a meltdown, but for some autistic people — it will.

It might be hard for neurotypical people to understand how a bad sensory experience can push someone towards extreme psychological stress. But remember that neurotypical people have a different sensory profile. Still, things that are bad for their sensory profile can push them over the edge too. Think about stories we’ve heard of how prisoners of war are tortured — drips on their forehead, loud songs on repeat, being held in prisons with no light or darkness without any room to move around. These are sensory tortures, and people with sensory processing disorder experience those tortures everywhere.

The more overstimulated I get, the more sensitive I am to sensory triggers.

Being understimulated looks like:

I feel like I’m unreal, like a character in a video game. I feel sick and grotty, as if I’ve been in a car for hours. I start to wonder if I am in a simulation, and whether I exist at all. I feel out of touch with myself and my body and my emotions.

How I Manage Sensory Processing Disorder

Living beautifully with sensory processing disorder means avoiding negative sensory triggers wherever I can, and adding sensory glimmers (wonderful things) wherever I can.

Avoiding sensory triggers

The problem with avoiding triggers is that a lot of neurotypical people don’t want to live without things that make SPD really hard — like hand dryers or spraying foot powder all over their feet in the changing room at the pool. Whenever I’ve asked neurotypical people to wait to use the hand dryer for a second until I get my autistic 5-year-old out of the bathroom, I’ve never had a positive reaction.

Avoiding triggers makes me look weird. I don’t like my food to touch, and I insist on it no matter how much my husband doesn’t get it. Refusing to go to friends’ houses because they might have a cat litter tray, or use air freshener makes me look rude, but it’s really important that I minimize my exposure to bad sensory things so that I have enough energy for when I have to attend something that is in a triggering place — like a soft play center for a kids birthday, or when I need to go to the supermarket.

Adding sensory glimmers

Adding glimmers to my life wherever I can helps me to reduce the grotty feeling that being understimulated gives me. My level of self-care is on goddess levels just to help me through the day, and yes, it does make me come across as quite princessy to others.

I stim by drinking lots of herbal tea and fresh water. I go for long walks in the countryside alone, wearing barefoot walking shoes so I can feel connected to the earth. I lift weights in the gym regularly and love the soreness I get in my muscles the next day. I swim. I sit in the sauna and steam room a few times a week. I go for deep pressure massages. I do yoga. I have many lotions, potions, and aromatherapy oils. I stroke fluffy toys and wear fluffy socks. I eat a lot of candy too!

Making sure I’m stimming in a positive way helps me to avoid negative stims like biting my mouth.

I need time to stim daily.

This is a lifestyle that would be good for everybody

I may not be able to physically work in an office, but that doesn’t mean those who can enjoy it. People who don’t know about my SPD wonder how I can be so motivated to exercise and care for myself so regularly, but they would really benefit from taking time to intentionally do things that are pleasurable to them each day.

Getty image by Klaus Vedfelt.

Originally published: July 12, 2022
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