by Anjali Balakrishna
photography courtesy of Ece Yavuz
Bright lights. Loud noises. Crowded cafes. Scratchy sweaters and tight jeans. All of these things seem commonplace, and most people wouldn’t think twice if they encountered one or all of them. However, for people with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), that is far from the truth.
Sensory Processing Disorder refers to the disconnect between the nervous system and sensory input. For some individuals, this could display as either sensory overload or not noticing certain stimuli (e.g. hot surfaces). SPD is typically seen in children, but as the STAR Institute in Colorado reports, if it is left untreated, it can be present in some adults.
Ethan*, 17, has struggled with SPD since he was about three years old.
“I can’t stand people filing their nails… all of my clothes have no tags, and I don’t wear some fabrics,” said Ethan. “The biggest is foods; I can’t eat most mushy foods because they will actually make me throw up. I also can’t have hot drinks for the same reason.”
Oftentimes the response to overwhelming stimuli can be similar to that of an anxiety attack; individuals may experience discomfort and/or agitation, but physical responses like Ethan’s are not all that uncommon. People with odor sensitivities, for example, may become nauseated.
Sarah Christy (SAR ’21) volunteered at a therapeutic horseback-riding center in high school. It was there that she learned about SPD.
“This was more tailored for young children, even though we were taught some adult skills,” Christy said. “We had a consistent schedule mapped out, we had different fidget toys to help with distraction and we always had extra sunglasses and earplugs.”
There are many misconceptions about SPD, a major one being that it is a form of autism. While it is true that many individuals on the spectrum face sensory issues, it is not the same conversely. Having SPD that does not make you someone autistic, as it can be a stand-alone diagnosis.
Another misconception, though indirectly about SPD, is how many senses humans use. Children are raised learning about the five senses: sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste. However, Christy mentioned that she learned an additional three senses while going through training.
“Body positioning, balance, and interoceptive [knowing what is going on within one’s body].” In conjunction, they learned that, “SPD is like a ‘neurological traffic jam’ in how the senses don’t always work properly,” Christy said.
There are various treatment options for SPD, some of which can overlap with autism treatments. Occupational therapy (OT) and physical therapy (PT) are two common methods of treatment that help individuals learn more about how to conduct their daily activities or body movements more smoothly. Ethan did roughly seven to eight years of both OT and PT and points specifically to exposure therapy for helping him improve so much.
For many that do not know about or understand SPD, it is important to understand a few things. Symptoms of SPD, specifically in adolescents and adults, can look similar to ADD/ADHD in terms of difficulty with focus and shifting between tasks without completion. In addition, some do not like to be touched, may have trouble tolerating certain temperatures or anything else from a spectrum of symptoms.
Eric Forsberg (CAS ’20) had a coworker with SPD. Something he said might be helpful for others that know someone with SPD is to, “simply be aware of it.”
On top of that, not losing patience if a place is too loud, too bright, etc. Do some research and learn about how you can support them or cater to their needs when you are together.
Ethan also wants people to understand that the presentation of SPD symptoms “varies a lot between people and they aren’t choosing to be affected by things.”
Though trying to help someone experiencing sensory overload may also be overwhelming, Christy found it helpful, “to take a step back and remember how overwhelming it must be for the individual in that particular moment … While it may be hard for you, it’s ten times harder for the individual going through it.”
In essence, SPD is overwhelming—or underwhelming, depending on the person. Learning about the disorder is part and parcel to the age-old phrase, “you never know what someone else is going through.” What one may perceive as an overreaction could just be a reaction due to another’s sensitivity.
To learn more about SPD, resources,or even look at research, go to https://www.spdstar.org/
* Last name omitted for privacy reasons.