A person sitting with their knees bent and their arms around their legs with pillows in the background

Examples of Sensory Processing Disorder Symptoms From an Adult with SPD

There are many resources online with examples of Sensory Processing Disorder, but what does it really feel like? As an adult who was diagnosed with SPD as a child, I finally have the language and perspective to be able to describe what Sensory Processing Disorder feels like to me. This article provides examples of Sensory Processing Disorder symptoms with accompanying descriptions of how I perceive things.

I am overresponsive to many stimuli, so this article doesn’t encompass every symptom or experience of SPD. A symptom checklist can be found at the end of this post.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder (or Sensory Integration Dysfunction) can be thought of as a “neurological traffic jam” that prevents information from the senses from being organized for use in an appropriate way. There are several subtypes and various forms the disorder can take, but the underlying issue lies in the nervous system’s ability to take in and deal with sensory stimuli.

Examples of Sensory Processing Disorder Symptoms

Visual Overstimulation

Red, blue, and yellow shapes overlapping with light shining through
Photo by Chris F on Pexels

I can’t seem to filter visual “noise” in the same way that other people do. It feels like an onslaught of lights and images that I have no natural defense against. I reach my limit quickly.

Examples

  • 30 minutes of fluorescent lights make me feel like I’ve been out on a bright, snowy slope for a day without sunglasses.
  • Chaotic movement, like that in busy stores and restaurants is hard for me to follow. It just becomes a sharp scene of color and light that disorients me.
  • Flashing lights are highly distracting. My brain can’t tune them out, so they constantly vie for my attention.
  • I prefer an uncluttered living space because it requires less visual work to navigate. Clutter feels suffocating, and the constant stimulation of so many items around me feels draining.
  • I don’t always wear my glasses because the blurry distance is calming. It removes some of the sharpness of my visual field and lets me lower my defenses a little.
  • Digital screens can cause nausea for me, especially if I have to do a lot of scrolling up and down.

Sound Sensitivity and Sensory Gating

For some people with SPD, repeated stimuli don’t get filtered out like they do in people without sensory symptoms. This function is called “sensory gating.” The electrical response your brain has to an initial stimulus typically becomes smaller with subsequent stimuli as your brain adjusts to it and decides it doesn’t need your full attention. With SPD, however, this process is not as efficient.

A 3D render of a gray/blue material spraying outward against a black background
Photo by Petar Petkovski on Unsplash

Say you encounter a barking dog. Everyone is startled by the first bark. We get a boost of adrenaline, our hearts start beating faster, and we start imperceptibly (or perceptibly) sweating. Some people can quickly return to normal even as the dog continues to bark, but for people with SPD, every bark can feel just as jarring as the first one.

Sensory gating is not limited to auditory stimuli, but here are some examples of how sensitivity to sounds and sensory gating deficits affect me.

Examples

  • Stiff plastic wrappers hurt my ears and make my eyes water. Opening a granola bar feels like someone is aggressively crumpling 3 wrappers directly next to each of my ears. I don’t understand the acoustics of this phenomenon, but it is mighty unpleasant.
  • Loud toilets are a sudden thunderous roar to me. I used to refuse to go to the bathroom if I knew the toilet was one of those automatic, rapid flush ones. The noise would throw me into a panic and I’d burst out of the stall with my heart pounding. Thankfully, I have since mastered toilets.
  • I like wearing headphones even without anything playing because they soften the sounds around me.
  • Much like the barking dog example, some noises don’t get adjusted in my brain and therefore sound deafening the entire time they’re happening. I have to psych myself up to trigger or use loud household items, like:
    • blender
    • garbage disposal – my family knows to warn me before turning it on.
    • closing the microwave
    • electric toothbrush – I switch off between electric and regular when I feel I can’t handle the noise and vibration of the electric one.
    • garage door
    • coffee grinder
    • vacuum
    • lawn mower – if I don’t take enough breaks, I end up leaving the mower in the middle of the yard and then crying and hyperventilating on the floor. It feels like running the lawn mower while in a metal box, sound flying all around me at intolerable volume.

I have a technique for pouring dry dog food into a stainless steel bowl with minimal noise, I like to close doors quietly, and I prefer not to wear shoes indoors because my own footsteps are too loud.

Tactile Over-Responsivity and Sensory Defensiveness

A right hand touching a pine tree
Photo by Petr Macháček on Unsplash

Sensory defensiveness means that a person has an aversive, out-of-proportion reaction to a stimulus that is not considered dangerous or harmful by others. It doesn’t have to be tactile, but as I’ve always been sensitive to touch (tactile over-responsivity), these are some of the most challenging examples of Sensory Processing Disorder in this regard for me.

Examples

  • Unexpected hugs (especially from behind). Touch sometimes startles me even when I know it’s coming, so being suddenly grabbed is scary. Agreed-upon hugs are usually good in my book, though.
  • The feeling of tearing paper towels without the perforation is one of the most viscerally horrible sensations I’ve ever felt, and I can’t even explain why. It makes me want to throw up and then crumple into a little ball on the floor.
  • Lotion. I have a love/hate relationship with it due to its revolting sliminess and soothing itch relief.
  • Splashing in pools is a surefire way to make sure I get out. This is partly visual, as I’m sensitive to movement near my face, and partly that I seem to feel every individual drop. I interpret it as danger and react in the way someone would if a spray of pebbles were kicked up near their face.
  • Clothes Shopping with Sensory Processing Disorder is difficult in part because I eliminate at least half of the available choices without even trying them. Lace, elastic, velvet, corduroy, wool, sequins, stiff fabric, and prominent seams are all out automatically. Certain textures and designs create constant aversive sensory input, like if your clothing were made of sandpaper.
  • Bunched-up and constrictive clothing. Everything has to be arranged perfectly, especially my shirt sleeves inside my coat sleeves. If not, it creates uneven contact with my skin and I am hopelessly distracted.

I’ve found that my experience of unpleasant tactile stimuli is terrible not only because the feeling itself is bad, but because it lingers.

The paper towels, for instance, leave something like an echo of the sensation. I keep feeling it as if it were still happening, with decreasing intensity over time. I tend to deal with this by frantically looking for something hard and smooth to touch to replace the tactile horrors of improperly torn paper towels.

Body Awareness with Sensory Processing Disorder

A moving, illuminated ferris wheel at night
Photo by Shahzin Shajid on Unsplash

Sensory Processing Disorder can make it difficult to discern where your body is in space, a sense called “proprioception.” Together with the vestibular sense, these systems help us balance, understand where our limbs are, and generally keep track of which way is up.

Examples

  • Vertigo and dizziness when I don’t sleep enough and when I’ve been in a car for a long time.
  • Rollercoasters? I’ve been on one. Absolutely never again.
  • Using touch controls on wireless earbuds. A challenge for me because I can’t touch the earbud without looking in a mirror. I don’t always know where my arms are in relation to my ears.
  • I’m highly prone to motion sickness.
  • Dental exam chairs. I feel genuinely confused about the angle at which I’m reclined. For years, I really thought that they were putting me slightly more than 90 degrees back and that I was actually tilted upsidedown. Knowing the earthshattering truth doesn’t change how it feels, but at least I know now that my body is lying to me.
  • Slightly fast elevators are exhilarating.
  • Motion sickness. Did I say that already? So much motion sickness.

Dyspraxia in Sensory Processing Disorder

A wooden chess board with assorted wooden chess pieces mid-game
Photo by Jani Kaasinen on Unsplash

Praxis is the process of planning and carrying out sequences of movements. This can be as simple as the automatic steps you take to get dressed, or it can be as complex as planning long-term goals. Impaired praxis is referred to as “dyspraxia.” Dyspraxia falls under the sensory-based motor disorder subtype of Sensory Processing Disorder.

Not everyone with Sensory Processing Disorder also has dyspraxia. I have symptoms of it that only tend to become a problem when I’m tired or overstimulated. It’s like something short-circuits in my brain and I suddenly can no longer comprehend how to do things.

Examples

  • “Simple” household tasks. I recently had two forks and two knives jumbled in one hand while setting the table, and all I had to do was divide them among two plates. For a solid 5 seconds, I could not figure out what I was supposed to do first. I had to walk myself through it step by step. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that, but it illustrates how dyspraxia can affect functioning at every level.
  • Making decisions. When I’m tired or overstimulated, my decision-making abilities tank. Just choosing what to eat at a loud restaurant can be difficult. When my brain is trying to cope with the sensory information that’s flooding in, there’s not much bandwidth left to handle decisions. It feels like I’m trying to juggle several raw eggs while comparing the 25+ menu items.
  • Copying movements. I learn concepts best through visual means, but translating actions I see someone doing, like in an exercise video, into coherent directions for my own body doesn’t come naturally to me.
  • Driving. I’ve improved immensely, but it took me a long time to get comfortable with it.
  • Getting on escalators. Planning the movement and timing it correctly is not an automatic task for me.

Allowing Myself Patience with SPD

A blue sign with yellow block letters reading "Be kind. Unwind."
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Over the years (and for multiple reasons), I’ve become an expert at hiding my emotions and powering through. I don’t want to inconvenience anyone and I don’t want to stand out. I can do anything that someone without SPD can do. But it takes a toll, and sometimes, it’s not worth it. Learning to listen to myself is still a work in progress, but it’s a valuable goal.

On the plus side, I don’t need to pay for horror movie tickets or haunted houses. I get my thrills by flushing toilets and riding elevators.

I hope that these examples of Sensory Processing Disorder are helpful. They are only my own experience, and they don’t encompass every SPD symptom. For more information specifically about Sensory Processing Disorder in adults, I suggest checking out the resources below.


Sensory Processing Disorder Symptoms Checklist (scroll down for the adult checklist)

Find SPD Treatment (be sure to check “works with adults” on the specialty menu)

Sensory Blogs I Follow:

http://comingtosenses.blogspot.com/

https://eatingoffplastic.com/

https://sensorycoach.org/blog/

yearly calendar on table with cup of coffee and dish of paper clips

December Resolutions

The yearly frustration that most of us can likely relate to is that our New Year’s resolutions only last a few weeks, or at best, a few months, and yet we continue to make them. It’s relatable because change is hard, and the excitement of turning over a new leaf soon gives way to the stresses of normal life and the reality of breaking old habits. But there’s something so attractive about starting fresh; new calendar, new me.

Clearly, I like the idea of making a deliberate change on a specific date. Something about marking your resolution with an external, cyclical change makes it feel more decisive. Unfortunately, I am so put off by the pressure of an entire year ahead of my resolutions that I simply don’t make any. I’ve made New Year’s resolutions in the past but petered out before they really formed habits. Then, the internal shame of having failed a New Year’s resolution discourages me from trying again mid-year. Because really, why can’t I just resolve to change whenever I want? Because human brains like to impose order on things like arbitrary laps around the sun.

Instead of griping about the pitfalls of New Year’s resolutions and why I can never seem to make it work for me, I’m going to try something different.

~*~*~*~December Resolutions~*~*~*~

This sounds incredibly silly and I think that it’s a little bit sad that it’s come to this, but I think I need to trick myself into meeting my goals. Instead of making a list of resolutions and waiting until the new year to begin, I’m going to have a trial month for my new habits. December will be my 31-day behavior test, and if I hate the goals/habits I come up with, no big deal. I won’t feel bad about quitting because it’s only my December resolutions, not the monumentally more important New Year’s resolutions.

(Yeah. It’s exactly the same thing, but shhh, don’t tell my brain.)

Bonus, if I do like my resolutions and am happy to keep going with them, I won’t have to face the overwhelm of a brand new year stretching ahead of me. I’ll already have a whole month under my belt.

I really think this is going to work for me, at least better than the usual resolution schedule does. Here’s my list of December resolutions, but remember, it’s low-stress, low-commitment, so these can change without me feeling like a failure. At least, that’s the theory.

  1. ACTUALLY start volunteering. Somewhere. Anywhere. Don’t just think about it.
  2. Keep running regularly (yay, I’ve already started!) See if I can reach a comfortable 5 miles by January. I’m more than halfway there, so this seems very doable.
  3. Reestablish a skincare routine, aka get my psoriasis under👏 control👏.
  4. Welcome the hostile Duolingo owl back into my life and start re-learning German.

These seem reasonable to accomplish within a month. The one that I’m definitely most apprehensive about is volunteering. At this point, I’ve thought about it for so long and looked at opportunities in such detail that I really have to just go and do it, and try not to worry about all of the unknowns (thanks, SPD).

Ok, internet, hold me accountable.

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Explaining SPD to Health Professionals

It’s become clear that I have a hard time explaining how Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) affects me, particularly when I’m speaking to health professionals.

When I was recently hospitalized, I spoke to a ton of mental health professionals, all of whom asked me about my diagnoses. I had no trouble letting them know about my diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder, nor did I struggle to tell them about my childhood history of OCD. Disclosing that I have Sensory Processing Disorder was something that I was oddly unprepared for. I either would minimize it by mentioning it as an afterthought, neglect to mention it at all, or not do an adequate job of explaining it if I was asked follow-up questions.

Sensory Processing Disorder is not in the DSM, and I’m never sure whether the person I’m speaking to believes in its validity. I’ve never run into anyone who gives me reason to believe they don’t, but the disorder’s lack of diagnostic acceptance puts me on edge. SPD is a neurological condition that results in differences in how the brain processes information. Does this make it a physical health condition or a mental health condition? SPD has multiple sub-disorders; is it enough to simply say “I have SPD”? How should I go about explaining my disorder without minimizing it or coming across as defensive?

Usually, when someone asks me how SPD affects me, I end up saying something like “I’m over-responsive to a lot of stimuli, so things like loud noises, bright lights, and certain textures really bother me.” While accurate, this doesn’t capture the extent to which SPD affects me. Saying loud noises bother me doesn’t illustrate that I have to spend 2-3 full minutes psyching myself up with my finger on the button before I turn on the blender. When I say that changes to my routine drain me, what I really mean is that I once had a full-blown panic attack while driving on the highway because I had to leave earlier than usual and it was drizzling.

Sensory Processing Disorder is real. It’s also hard to explain. I’ve started using a mixture of SPD terminology and real-life examples to illustrate my symptoms, and while it’s difficult, I combat my tendency to understate everything by tossing in some descriptive adjectives like “overwhelming,” “draining,” and “dysregulated”. The vast majority of health professionals just want to help, so describing your challenges as accurately as possible is really the best approach. Plus, advocating for yourself is important, something that I recently learned firsthand. But, that’s a story for another time.

How do you explain SPD to health professionals? Share your tips in the comments!

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The Weekly Plan: Structure and Expectations

I recently wrote a post about SPD and dyspraxia, in which I mentioned using a weekly plan to help me deal with uncertainty and change. In all honesty, I haven’t used my weekly plan in a while, so I’m hoping that reflecting on what worked for me and what didn’t might encourage me to get back into it.

How to Make a Weekly Plan

There really isn’t one right way to make a weekly plan. I like to create mine with an hourly-organized template so that I can schedule each part of my day. It helps me stay on track and prevent procrastination. Sometimes I take more of a loose, overarching goal approach where I identify a couple of tasks per day or week that I want to accomplish, and then fit those in around my normal routine.

I’ve tried a paper planner and a digital notes app, and I’d say I prefer the digital method; I can refer to it anytime because, like a typical millennial, I’m never far from my phone. It’s also easy to alter by replacing items or copy and pasting them to another day/list. The digital method also appeals to me because replacing tasks leaves no evidence of the previous one, as with paper and pen, which brings me to another point:

Pitfalls

I had to dedicate several weeks to trial and error when starting my weekly plans as part of my occupational therapy. I tend to avoid making choices as much as is humanly possible (thanks, sensory discrimination challenges), so when I’m faced with a decision like “digital or paper?” I won’t know which one I prefer until I try both and compare them.

Rigidity

Here, we come back to the “digital changes leave no trace”. This is a relic of my own high expectations for myself and my reluctance to change plans. I found that erasing (or worse- crossing out) tasks in my weekly plan when I couldn’t complete them brought on a sense of guilt and failure. Nevermind that imposed the plan in the first place and may have bitten off more than I could chew. Once it’s in the plan, I have to do it, right? Nope- moving things around and postponing some tasks is often necessary. Something takes longer than you anticipated, an unexpected problem arises, or you’re really just not up for tackling a particular task that day. I think eventually, I’ll get better at finding the balance of flexibility and rigidity, but until then, a digital format works best for me. That way, I don’t have to see the faint outlines of my overly ambitious, past plans.

Too Much Detail

Honestly, this is still something I struggle with. It’s tricky to know how much is reasonable to plan into one day, especially because, as with the previous section, sometimes things come up and you’ve got to shift gears. When I started figuring out my weekly plans, I started seeing improvements in my productivity, and consequently, my mood. Riding the wave of that success, I was perhaps a bit overzealous in my weekly planning and crammed as much detail as possible into each day. Every hour was occupied by some task, either work-related or relaxation-related. (You can imagine that that approach wasn’t very conducive to relaxation.) Ultimately, too much detail would lead me to fall “behind” on my plan, start to feel discouraged, and sometimes just give up on the day altogether. Now, I like to leave a buffer zone around work tasks and intentionally leave at least a couple of hours empty to take care of little chores or just sit around and do nothing.

My Ideal Plan with Sensory Processing Disorder

I think that anyone can benefit from a weekly plan; even if you try it and decide it’s not for you, you’ll likely learn something about yourself in the process.

I’m over-responsive to a lot of stimuli, and I have some issues with discriminating sensory information, so I do best with predictability. Routine is how I function best, and spur-of-the-moment action makes me anxious. For me, my ideal weekly plan is one that looks pretty similar to the previous week’s. Whether I write it out or keep it in my head, my day-to-day routine is remarkably consistent; and that’s how I like it. For someone who seeks more stimulation, this might be incredibly dull, so it’s certainly not for everyone. I keep most of what I do every day the same, and then sprinkle in equal amounts of fun and dreaded tasks. Going to the dentist on Tuesday? Make Wednesday a library day. Need to go grocery shopping? Pick up a treat as a reward. When things start to get a little too consistent, I go back to the drawing board and make an effort to incorporate new activities.

Extra Tips

  1. Keep a running to-do list for when you’re at a loss for what to do.
  2. Pick a day of the week to sit down and plan the next one.
  3. Break large tasks down into smaller chunks to be accomplished over time.
  4. Don’t take it too seriously- it’s a tool, not a rule.

College and SPD: 3 Things I Wish I Knew

I’ve known that I’m sensitive my entire life. I don’t like crowds, loud noises, getting splashed in the pool, or rollercoasters, and although I technically knew that I had Sensory Processing Disorder, that fact clung to the periphery of my awareness until I was nearing my college graduation. For the majority of my time at university, I questioned my worth, my intelligence, and my capabilities. Had I gone into college prepared with knowledge about my disorder and the intention to remember my sensory differences, I think my experience would have been much more positive.

But, here we are, and shoulda, coulda, wouldas won’t change the past. But they might change your future, so I thought I’d expand upon what I wish I knew about college and SPD.

1. I Got In For a Reason

I can’t tell you how much time I wasted worrying about my perceived inadequacy and comparing myself to my peers. So. Much. Time. And where did it get me? Countless sleepless nights and a heck of a lot of cortisol. When the other freshmen complained about the workload and said that they “breezed through high school”, what I thought was geez, I had to work really hard in high school. That must mean I’m not smart enough to be here. What I should have thought was: I worked really hard in high school and developed valuable time-management skills and study techniques. 

In hindsight, I probably felt I needed to put a lot of effort into my high school classes because planning and abstract thought are not my strong suits (read: math is hard for me). I often felt behind my peers because I learn best when I have quiet time to digest new information on my own; doing homework was usually when concepts started to make sense, but I was often utterly lost in class.

So, the bottom line is: I wish I knew that my learning style has more to do with sensory processing and less to do with my intelligence.

2. Everyone’s College Experience is Different

I’m an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type. This doesn’t tend to mesh well with the party lifestyle many people associate with college. I also really like oatmeal raisin cookies and think they’re vastly underappreciated. (Read: I’m actually an old person in a young person’s body.) My point is, I spent a lot of time feeling like I was missing out on all the things I knew I wouldn’t like, just because it seemed like I should.

A sub-category of this section is that finding a space that fits your needs in terms of community, interests, and activities is definitely possible and makes a huge difference in creating a sense of belonging. I went to an enormous university, and I was worried that it would be hard to make friends. So, I lived in a small, all-female dorm for three of my four years there. That turned out to be the best part of my college experience. I made life-long friendships and I immediately felt welcomed and accepted.

3. Focus on Yourself

In some ways, I did do this; I went to office hours, I prioritized classwork, I took the maximum number of credits a few times in order to fit in two majors. In other words, I focused on my academic goals, pretty much to the exclusion of all else. I didn’t start seeing a therapist until my senior year, and I failed to advocate for myself when it came to things like roommate disagreements and class accommodations.

When you’re in college, it’s important to remember that it’s your education. It’s a privilege many people don’t have, so get the most out of it while you can. That being said, your education won’t be much good to you or anyone else if you’re unable to use it after graduating. Taking care of yourself should be your first priority.

deer
Gotta love Nichol’s Arboretum and its weirdly habituated deer.

There are some aspects of college life that are unavoidable. For example- I don’t like crowds, and going to a big school meant that I was bound to encounter crowded walkways several times a day. When I had roommates, I realized that there weren’t many places on campus where I could be truly alone. Being surrounded by people at all times was exhausting, so I went on long walks to the arboretum near campus. I even started timing it so that I wouldn’t be leaving or returning when classes let out and the sidewalks were jammed with students.

 

There are a ton of other things related to Sensory Processing Disorder that I wish I knew or that I discovered a little late in my college career. Before I’m out of college for too long and forget them, I figured I’d share a few of them here. If coursework and time management, navigating campus, creating your ideal dorm room, or anything else SPD and college life-related is something you’d like to read more about, let me know.

 

Dyspraxia, SPD, and Change

If you’ve ever spent time around small children, you might be familiar with the sneaky tactic that is framing decisions with acceptable options. Asking a toddler if they want three pieces of broccoli or four somehow bypasses the part where they say they want cake, instead. For as long as I can remember, my mother has given me options from which to choose, but not because she was trying to shepherd me towards a healthy decision. It’s more because if she didn’t do that, we’d likely still be waiting for me to decide what to eat on my fifth birthday. I’m twenty-two. Dyspraxia as a symptom of SPD is and has been a roadblock for me for a long time.

What is Dyspraxia?

Dyspraxia falls under the Sensory-Based Motor Disorder subtype of Sensory Processing Disorder. People with SPD often have a combination of affected sensory systems that lead to symptoms in one or more SPD subtypes. The STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder sums it up this way:

“Individuals with Dyspraxia have trouble processing sensory information properly, resulting in problems planning and carrying out new motor actions. They may have difficulty in forming a goal or idea, planning a sequence of actions or performing new motor tasks.”

A Few Tips for Dealing with Dyspraxia

As an adult with symptoms of dyspraxia, I notice that decision-making, in particular, is often difficult. Even small decisions, like which brand of cornbread mix to buy can leave me scratching my head in the baking aisle for way too long. Bigger decisions, like where to go to college resulted in a stressful, last-minute choice after months of deliberation. Here are a few of the ways I tackle everyday and not-so-everyday decisions.

  1. Make a list of the options: (my OT calls this a “menu”)
  2. Decide what you can handle at that moment: (Am I only considering something because other people expect me to?)
  3. Ask for support
  4. Take a break and come back to it
  5. Put it in perspective: (Is it crucial that I make the “right” choice? E.g. the cornbread dilemma)
  6. Plan ahead!

When I started occupational therapy, one of the things we worked on was creating a weekly plan. Since spontaneity is not my strong suit, planning in activities ahead of time makes it more likely that I’ll follow through. Now that I have an established routine, I don’t make a plan every week, but it’s a good fall-back option for when I’m in a rut. It’s also great for when big changes are happening; a new job, moving, even the holidays are well-known for disrupting routines and causing stress. With symptoms of dyspraxia, life changes can be completely overwhelming, so tackling decisions ahead of time can make coping so much easier.

Last, But Not Least

drawing-of-girl-looking-at-surreal-landscape-with-bees-surrounding-herMy final tip (one that I’m still working on, myself) is to be as patient and nonjudgmental about dyspraxia as possible. I still get frustrated with myself for being slow to make decisions or reluctant to try new things, but it helps to remind myself of why those things are difficult for me. It also allows me to more easily support myself before and after unavoidable, sudden changes. After all, routines are great, but life can be pretty unpredictable. Knowing how to handle disruptions is always a good skill to have, even if it is a work in progress.