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
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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:
- 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
- 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
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.
- 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
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.
- 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
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.
- “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
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: