Sensory Processing Disorder in Adults
In my early 20’s, while I was teaching special education, a coworker handed me a new sensory integration toy she’d purchased for her classroom.It was rubber and had long stretchy bits. The sensation of holding it was so overwhelming to me that I threw it and screamed. I reacted much like an arachnophobe does when handed a spider. My skin crawled. It also made me break out in goose bumps that would not go away for a full five minutes. Incidents like this led an occupational therapist I worked with to suggest I research Sensory Processing Disorder. She was convinced I had the disorder. The more I read, the more events in my life started making sense. Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD, is difficult to explain to people who do not deal with it on a daily basis. Often, people with SPD face being told they are “weird” or “picky”, depending on how their SPD manifests. In children, this is often written off as a phase of development and overlooked. In adults, SPD can sometimes be socially crippling.
Sensory Processing Disorder is when signals from one sense get misinterpreted by the brain somehow. This can mean that senses are interpreted incorrectly, or in a manner that is overwhelming. Sounds may seem unusually loud. A dim light may appear painfully bright. A light touch may seem too firm. A sensation might be so intense that it is impossible to concentrate on anything else. Everyone processes things differently, which is why some people can tolerate tags in their shirts while others cannot. But when someone has SPD, that tag in their shirt might be physically painful.
When SPD is recognized in children, it can be treated with a variety of sensory integration techniques. It’s when SPD is not discovered that it truly becomes a problem. Generally adults with SPD struggle more if they are easily overstimulated rather than under-stimulated. An adult with undiagnosed SPD might have panic attacks at the thought of overwhelming stimulus. SPD that manifests in oral form might mean that someone avoids social situations that revolve around food. Just as people with germ phobias struggle with situations where they need to come in contact with strangers who might attempt to shake hands with them, someone with SPD struggles with situations where he or she might be forced to endure overwhelming sensory input.
When an adult has undiagnosed SPD, he or she might not know what is wrong. They might buy into the hypothesis that they’re merely strange and not seek treatment. Others might withdraw from society where they are inundated with lights, sounds, or sensations that are overwhelming or painful. Some people with SPD learn to adapt and find ways to hide their difficulties, which is what I’ve learned to do – I avoid triggers as much as possible. Still others have learned that spreading awareness of SPD is the most effective way of gaining social acceptance. Sensory Processing Disorder does not need to be a socially crippling diagnosis. Instead, people with SPD can learn to embrace their uniqueness.