“Behavior is a reflection of the organization of your nervous system at that moment and under those conditions.
~Patti Oetter, O.T.
- Are you jittery, anxious, panicked, depressed, or obsessive/compulsive?
If so, do any of the following also apply to you?
- Off balance or clumsy;
- Hypersensitive to sensation;
- Sensation seeking;
- Disorganized, distracted, or spacey;
- “Lazy” and find it hard to get your body moving;
- Thrown by change.
If you answered “yes” to one or more of the above, along with being anxious or depressed you might have sensory processing disorder (SPD).
Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a common, but a relatively unknown condition in which sensory messages get scrambled in the brain. This causes a traffic jam on the sensory highway, and you cannot make accurate sense of or respond appropriately to your world.
What seems simple and automatic to the normal brain becomes perplexing, irritating, effortful or even at times impossible. Spontaneous behavior takes conscious effort and energy, making you feel uptight and off center.
What Might You Experience?
If you are over-responsive to sensation, you might
- Cringe when someone touches your shoulder;
- Jump at the fire alarm;
- Need to wear sunglasses even on a cloudy day;
- Feel intense pain from a small cut on your toe;
- Get dizzy and panicky on a roller coaster.
If you are under-responsive to sensation, you might
- Not be aware that an ant is crawling up your arm;
- Barely register the fire alarm;
- Not realize your toe is cut;
- Ride the roller coaster over and over, unable to get enough of the thrilling surge.
If your balance system is off, you might
- Appear clumsy, awkward, and uncoordinated;
- Lose balance easily when climbing stairs, riding a bicycle, jumping, standing on one foot, or standing on both feet with closed eyes;
- Avoid most sports or seek intense sports with strong input into balance system (roller coasters, parachuting, bungee jumping, car racing, water or downhill skiing), or deep pressure to body (horseback riding, deep sea diving, jumping & crashing on trampoline, rock climbing).
- Get car or sea sick easily.
If you have difficulty in figuring out your place in space, you might
- Need visual cues to zip, button and unbutton clothes and so forth;
- Have difficulty with fine motor skills, such as buttoning, zipping, writing, or using silverware;
- Misjudge spatial relationships of objects and bump into furniture, mis-step on stairs and curbs, drive over a curb or hit another car;
- Misjudge the weight of an object and push too hard on your pencil, e.g. and easily break them;
- Have a problem gauging when you need to urinate or defecate and let your bladder get too full and may suffer constipation.
If you have poor visual-spatial discrimination, you might
- Be uncomfortable or overwhelmed by moving objects or people;
- Fatigue easily when using your eyes for close work;
- Find it difficult to quickly comprehend reading;
- Be poor at distinguishing foreground from background and find it hard to locate items among other items like papers on a desk, socks in a drawer, items on a grocery shelf;
- Experience difficulty perceiving depth, distance, boundaries and bump into objects or people, misstep on curbs and stairs and, not surprisingly, fear driving;
- Experience a problem scanning visual sequences and following rapid movement with your eyes and find it hard to follow a tennis match or video game;
- Be poor at recognizing symbols or gestures and might misinterpret facial cues.
If you have poor auditory discrimination, you might
- Become confused and misunderstand what is said or hear things that weren’t said;
- Blend foreground and background noises;
- Demonstrate oversensitivity or undersensitivity to sounds;
- Have trouble articulating thoughts verbally or in writing;
- Find it hard to filter out other sounds while conversing and attend to what someone is saying;
- Respond slowly to questions: “What?” you say, or “Could you repeat that?” and look at the other person for reassurance before answering.
SPD Causes a Battery of Problems
Such misinterpretation of sensory input creates stress and confusion, along with mental problems like poor concentration and focus, emotional problems like anxiety and depression, and physical problems like poor balance and clumsiness.
Professionals Often Clueless
If you turn to professionals for help, few will have heard of SPD and treat you with tranquilizers and antidepressants or psychotherapy. Such treatment generally does mildly improve quality of life by helping you cope better and feel better about self. But it impacts little the sensory and regulatory issues underlying this dysfunction us a neurological issue and becomes psychological only secondarily. Consequently, your functioning improves little and, still not knowing what is wrong with you, you feel invalidated and still anxious.
What Can You Do to Help Yourself?
There are many books on sensory processing disorder. And while most address SPD in special needs children, a few are directed at SPD in adults: my two books, Uptight & Off Center, and Too Loud, too Bright, too Fast, too Tight; Rachel Schneider’s book Making Sense; Carol Kranowitz’s book The Out-of-Sync Child Grows Up; and Winnie Dunn’s book, Living sensationally: Understanding your senses.
- sharonheller.net (adults)
- firstname.lastname@example.org (adults)
- spdlife.org (adults)
- spdfoundation.net (information, research, all ages)
- sensory-processing-disorder.com (all ages)
- sensoryproject.com (adults)
- sifocus.org (magazine-all ages)
- Sensory processing disorder and mental health (my group)
- Group: Sensory processing disorder adult support (group)
- Adults with sensory processing disorder (my page)
Ideally, everyone with sensory processing issues should get a proper evaluation and diagnosis from an occupational therapist, who will give you a battery of tests to evaluate your specific sensory processing problems. The OTs trained in sensory integration therapy are generally pediatric occupational therapists and, though they work primarily with children can generally accommodate adult clients as sensory integration therapy is easily adapted for adults.
Many adults, however, find the cost and time of working with an OT prohibitive and self-treat with the books and online resources available.
While sensorimotor and mind-body interventions can change your life substantially, healing sensory processing problems means healing all that imbalances the nervous system: sensory, psychological, neurological, nutritional, digestive, body toxicity, environmental toxicity, musculoskeletal problems, and cranial/sacral misalignment. For more information, see Uptight & Off Center and Too Loud, too Bright, too Fast, too Tight.
Sharon Heller, PhD, is a psychologist and consultant in sensory processing disorder. She’s the author of Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight, What to do if you are sensory defensive in an overstimulating world and Uptight & Off Center, How sensory processing disorder throws adults off balance & how to create stability. Her website is www.sharonheller.net and email email@example.com.
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