Sensory Processing Disorder In Adults

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Some people may become anxious, agitated, and edgy in response to loud noises. The scent of someone’s perfume or laundry detergent can make them nauseous. Or, an uncomfortable sweater or a scratchy tag on their shirt could be so irritating that it makes them feel like they want to escape their skin.

These people are hypersensitive to sensory stimuli, such as scents, tactile stimulation, noises, light, and taste. In addition to these five senses, they may also be hypersensitive to movement and balance and an internal body sense—when we sense signals from our bodies such as hunger, heartbeat, feeling hot or cold, etc. – called interoception.

This oversensitivity to sensory stimuli is known as sensory processing disorder (SPD), a condition in which the brain has difficulties receiving and responding to information received via the senses.

While it is commonly believed that SPD primarily affects children, adults can experience it as well. Recognizing sensory processing disorder in adults is important because it can lead to challenges in performing everyday tasks and maintaining social interactions. If you’re one of them, the following text may help you understand what sensory processing disorder is, how it impacts your life, and how you may mitigate its adverse effects.

Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory processing disorder (SPD), also called sensory integration disorder, involves an exaggerated response to sensory inputs. SPD happens when the brain misprocesses or cannot organize sensory messages it receives from outside or inside into the correct reactions. This makes it hard to handle information from all five senses, move, and keep your balance. Because your brain works differently than other people’s, you may be more sensitive to small environmental changes, making it easier to become overstimulated.

Can You Be Diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder?

SPD is not recognized as an official medical diagnosis. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) recognizes it only as a symptom of autism.

Everyone has different sensory sensitivity, and you can experience sensory processing disorder simply because you find your everyday surroundings too busy and overwhelming. However, some people may have sensory processing disorder because of their underlying conditions, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In contrast, some people with SPD are hyposensitive, meaning they respond to stimuli in a reduced way. These individuals may seek out more intense sensory experiences.

Sensory processing disorder in adults is often considered simply an overreaction or preference rather than a neurological condition. This misconception can result in misjudgment and a lack of support for those affected.

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Sensory Processing Disorder Symptoms

Individuals with SPD may have challenges in effectively responding to various stimuli. Symptoms can vary widely from person to person, and SPD can affect individuals differently. Here are some common symptoms associated with Sensory Processing Disorder:

  1. Overresponsivity (Sensory Defensiveness):

    • Hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli, such as:
      • Discomfort or distress in bright or flickering lights.
      • Covering ears or reacting strongly to loud noises, such as sirens, vacuum cleaners, or crowded spaces.
      • Avoidance of certain fabrics or clothing textures.
      • Strong negative reactions to certain smells, such as perfumes, cleaning products, or food odors.
    • Strong negative reactions to specific sensory experiences, leading to avoidance behaviors.
  2. Underresponsivity:

    • Difficulty noticing or responding to sensory stimuli, leading to a lack of awareness of environmental cues.
    • May seem unresponsive to touch, sound, or other sensory input.
  3. Sensory Seeking:

    • Craving or seeking out intense sensory experiences, such as rough play, spinning, or loud noises.
    • Engaging in repetitive or self-stimulating behaviors to fulfill sensory needs.
  4. Poor Motor Coordination:

    • Difficulty with fine and gross motor skills, such as handwriting, tying shoelaces, or participating in sports activities.
    • Challenges with balance and coordination.
  5. Social and Emotional Difficulties:

    • Difficulty with social interactions and forming relationships due to sensory sensitivities.
    • Emotional regulation challenges, leading to meltdowns or withdrawal.
  6. Difficulty with Transitions:

    • Struggles with changes in routine or transitioning between activities.
    • May become overwhelmed when faced with unexpected changes.
  7. Interoceptive Sensitivity (Awareness of Internal Sensations):

    • Difficulty recognizing and responding to hunger or fullness cues.
    • Challenges with awareness of internal states, such as body temperature or needing to use the restroom.
  8. Hyposensitivity or Hypersensitivity to Pain:

    • Some individuals may not register pain appropriately and may engage in activities that could result in injury without being aware.
    • Others may be hypersensitive to pain and react strongly to even minor stimuli.
  9. Issues with Eating:

    • Picky eating or avoidance of certain food textures due to sensory sensitivities.
    • Difficulty tolerating certain tastes, smells, or temperatures of foods.

Why is Sensory Processing Disorder Often Overlooked in Adults?

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Sensory processing disorder is frequently ignored in adults because most people have a misconception that it only affects children or neurodiverse individuals. In addition, adults may handle their symptoms much more efficiently than children, making sensory processing disorder less noticeable to others.

Moreover, symptoms of adult sensory processing disorder are often subtle or overlap with other conditions, such as anxiety, so they can be hard to spot. They may also be confused for different conditions, like anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or even just personal tastes or habits.

How Various Senses Contribute to Sensory Overload

Each sense can contribute to sensory overload, causing you to experience various forms of sensory perception disorder:

  • Sight: Multiple switching screens or bright lights, such as sunshine, can cause visual overload.
  • Hearing: Loud noises, such as thunderstorms or background noises, can overwhelm your auditory perception. You may wear noise-canceling headphones during thunderstorms.
  • Smell: Strong scents like scented candles or perfumes, strong-smelling food, or unpleasant smells. You may avoid going to restaurants or perfume departments at the mall.
  • Touch: tags on clothes, uncomfortable fabric, and being hugged or touched. You may spend hours considering what to wear for fear that certain fabrics would overwhelm you.
  • Taste: Bitter, spicy, or unfamiliar food. You may gag or spit out food you find too repulsive.
  • Movement: Fast or unpredictable movements, crowded places, or frequent spinning, swinging, and abrupt changes in direction.
  • Balance: Standing on high places, moving on unstable surfaces, or participating in activities requiring fast changes in direction or speed.
  • Interoception: Intense internal sensations like hunger, thirst, discomfort, or changes in heart rate or temperature overwhelm the body’s ability to process these feelings regularly.

What Causes Sensory Processing Disorder

It is still unclear what exactly causes sensory processing disorder. While it’s often associated with neurodevelopmental conditions such as ADHD or autism, studies suggest the role of differences in brain structure, genetics, and environmental factors in its onset. In some people, genetic mutations or alterations may impair the brain’s ability to absorb sensory information, causing difficulties with appropriate sensory integration.

Furthermore, early childhood experiences, such as stress that the mother experiences during pregnancy or certain environmental exposures before birth, have been linked to the condition’s development. Additionally, issues during birth, such as being born prematurely, might be the cause of SPD.

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How Can SPD Affect Your Daily Life?

Many adults with sensory processing disorder describe their daily experiences as overwhelming, feeling under attack by smells, sounds, tastes, textures, and other sensory experiences.

This sensory overload can be highly distracting or distressing. As a result, you can have difficulty studying or working, commuting, interacting with others, attending events, and participating in hobbies and sports. You may find it hard to deal with sensory inputs that most people overlook.

What SPD Does to Your Mental Health

When you constantly deal with unpleasant or upsetting experiences that most people would consider acceptable, you can become less resilient, making it harder to handle challenges and get back to normal after stress.

Living with SPD can make you feel anxious and depressed. This constant state of sensory overload can make you feel exhausted, trigger panic attacks, cause self-esteem issues, and force you to avoid certain activities or surroundings. 

How Does SPD Affect Social Interactions?

Adults with SPD may find social gatherings overwhelming due to the variety of sounds, odors, and tactile interactions. For example, while your friends revel in the lively party atmosphere, you find the buzz overwhelming because of loud music, multiple overlapping chatter, and the proximity of people. This sensory overload can cause anxiety or even lead to a panic attack, forcing you to avoid parties and crowded places. Constantly controlling sensory input in social settings can be distressing, causing you to withdraw and isolate from others. Avoiding and isolating may impact family dynamics, friendships, and romantic relationships. 

How Sensory Processing Disorder Affects Professional Life and Work?

As workplaces commonly involve constant noise, chatter, and bright lighting, sensory overload may cause workplace struggles for people with SPD. You may feel invaded by the hum of electronic devices or the sounds of colleagues talking, feeling anxious and stressed out all the time. This can make concentrating and doing your work difficult, leading to decreased productivity. Also, your need for special accommodations may cause misunderstandings and difficulties in interpersonal interactions.  

Strategies for Managing Sensory Processing Disorder in Adults

Getting professional help to manage sensory processing difficulties through occupational therapy is best. Still, there are some things you can do to ease the discomfort.

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Lifestyle modifications and accommodations

To manage sensory overload:

  • Create a setting and regular activities that limit sensory input and promote calmness.
  • Start by introducing some accommodations to your home environment. Keep the lighting dim in your room, declutter your living space, and equip your home with noise-reducing fabrics like heavy curtains or rugs.
  • Choose furniture with smooth textures, and use fragrance-free laundry detergents. 
  • Consider creating a dedicated quiet study/work or relaxation space where you can retreat to limit auditory and visual stimulation.
  • Choose comfortable clothing with natural, soft fabrics that do not irritate the skin. Keep clothes and personal items organized so they are easy to find to prevent decision-making stress. 
  • Use plain dishes and prepare homemade meals with plain, light foods to make mealtimes less distressing.
  • To encourage a relaxing mealtime, you may want to try mindful eating and focus on the eating experience—texture, taste, and aroma.
  • Create a calm environment in your bedroom—use soothing colors and blackout curtains. Practice mindfulness, deep breathing, listening to soft music or other calming activities before bed, and stick to a regular sleep schedule. 
  • Use noise-cancelling headphones while studying or working in a quiet study or workspace.
  • Communicate your needs with family, friends, and managers to make social interactions and work more manageable.
  • Engage in outdoor activities that allow you to control your sensory environment, such as hiking in nature or individual sports. This can help you to enjoy social interactions and leisure time without getting overwhelmed. 

Treatment Options

Occupational Therapy (OT) and Sensory Integration Therapy (SIT) are the most effective treatment options for sensory processing disorder.  

Occupational Therapy

Movement, physical contact, and decision-making can be challenging for people with SPD. Occupational therapy focuses on improving the skills required for daily activities and decreasing sensory symptoms. For adults with SPD, Occupational Therapy typically involves direct treatment, education, home programs, and accommodations. Your therapist will use specific sensory sources, such as sound, touch, movement, and other sensory experiences, to improve your sensory processing and integration, bring your symptoms back to normal, and effectively respond to these sensory experiences.

OT can improve your capacity to engage in everyday tasks and interactions, and it may be helpful if you:

  • Experience strong emotional reactions to situations that seem overwhelming 
  • Feel uncomfortable by other people’s touch 
  • Struggle with poor organizational skills
  • Have difficulties with attention and focus
  • Have poor balance and coordination
  • Have problems tolerating intense sounds, smells, or lights
  • Feel overwhelmed when using elevators or escalators 
  • Struggle to understand what it is that you are sensitive about 
  • Have problems with decision-making and problem-solving 
  • Have relationship issues due to SPD 

Sensory Integration Therapy 

STI aims to help individuals better process and respond to sensory information. SIT treatment can help you reduce sensory problems and improve everyday functioning by providing planned and tailored activities in a sensory-rich but controlled environment. Your therapist will systematically and gradually expose you to uncomfortable or distressing stimuli until you develop coping skills to manage discomfort from sensory stimulation.  

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The Journey Towards Empowerment and Self-Acceptance

Sensory processing disorder in adults are frequently unrecognized and untreated. And if you have sensory processing disorder, it is not only hypersensitivity that is overwhelming but also the inability to identify what you are being sensitive about. You may be easily over-aroused to subtle stimuli. You may find everyday tastes, smells, and textures intolerable and feel overwhelmed, distracted, or distressed by external and internal sensory experiences. These experiences can be excruciating, causing you to struggle at home, work, and in relationships. 

While your struggle may be unique, you’re not alone. Having people around who understand and support you, trying out therapies that help you deal with your senses better, and making adjustments to your everyday life to feel more comfortable can all make a big difference. Therapy, lifestyle modifications, and adaptations can help manage sensory processing and integration and navigate your everyday life more comfortably.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Priscilla is a therapist, psychoanalyst, and the practice owner of Imagine Emotional Wellness, a culturally responsive online therapy practice in New York, New Jersey, and Washington DC. 

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