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What It Feels Like to a Have Sensitive Sensory System

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I am very much neurodiverse in how I experience the world. I have diagnoses of ADHD, dyslexia, with cooccurring dyspraxia and sensory integration. I also have some social communication difficulties and demand anxiety. I find organization really difficult, and my external and internal world can sometimes get quite chaotic. The sensory sensitivities I have affect me greatly because they exasperate the stress I feel and influence my reactions.

Having a sensitive sensory system makes everything a little bit brighter and louder. Touch and certain noises can bring moving pains down my arms, running through to my hands. My brain can feel like it’s swelling, and my stomach can hurt. Within my arms and legs I can feel a dull ache, and the brightness from artificial lights can sting my eyes, causing me headaches.

I cannot switch off these sensations in my body, but the degree to which I experience sensory input fluctuates, and it can be of varying intensity from day to day. This means what can be tolerated one day may not be able to be tolerated the next. Stress and additional demands throughout my day can also lower my tolerance to sensory stimuli and exasperate these sensations.

My sensory sensitivities and my emotion regulation difficulties seem to be interconnected. You cannot prize them apart, but rather they continually interact with each other. This means when I have low sensory tolerance, my ability to cope with life and the demands other people put on me heightens, and my anxiety increases. This also means that on some days there doesn’t need to be much going on for me to feel stressed and over stretched.

I understand as an adult I need to be in charge of regulating these emotions and sensations. I now realize when I feel like I need space I must take myself away from people and not expect people to quieten or go away. This is difficult to remember, especially when I’m in pain. I now practice regular self-talk to calm myself, and I tell myself what is happening in my body: “You are feeling anxious right now, which is why your heart is beating fast and why you feel overwhelmed… this sensation will pass, take deep breathes… breathe in, breathe out,” and so on. This technique is extremely powerful for me.

I believe different is not less, but in turn I believe different needs to be treated as different. We can’t support someone who is neurodiverse by using strategies meant for the majority. The way they experience things is just not the same. We need more neurodiverse people to drive new approaches and supporting techniques so real differences can be made.

I believe it is now time for the focus to move away from behavioral modification and correction in favor of promoting emotion regulation and teaching autonomic and stress reduction strategies. That’s where I feel there needs to be a difference for different thinkers — then maybe more neurodiverse people like me can feel less pain, feel less heightened stress, regulate easier and move towards channeling our amazing unique gifts. We can be so much happier in who we are when we are just supported properly and accepted.

Getty image by blackdovfx

Originally published: May 3, 2018
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