Sensory Ramblings About Building a Fire

One day it’s 70 degrees, and the next there’s freezing rain and heavy snow. February in Colorado is a strange creature. After a day of low light and cold fingers, I clomped down the stairs to the back door, Stella in tow. She stood on the stairs to the deck and watched me as I chose logs from the woodpile underneath her. That’s by far my least favorite part of building a fire; I always inspect each piece carefully for spiders before I put it in the crook of my elbow. It’s probably too cold for them to be at the top of the pile, but as seeing black widow spiders was not unheard of in the house where I grew up, it’s my preference to be a choosy wood-carrier.

Building a fire is a skill that I learned as a child. We heated our house with a wood stove, and my formative winters were spent helping my parents keep the fire burning and the cold at bay. Now, when the snow is falling and I have nowhere to be, my first inclination is to get a fire going and then park myself in front of it with a book and a blanket. On this day, I brought two armfuls of wood upstairs and then searched the recycling for some newspaper or junk mail to burn. Then I grabbed some matches and plopped down in front of the fireplace.

From an occupational standpoint, building a fire is a fairly complex task, and it offers a lot of sensory input. You have to be able to tell which logs are dry, which ones have dangerous spiders on them, and then carry them safely to the fireplace without tripping over the dog. I know what kinds of materials are good for getting the blaze going, and which kinds are good for maintaining it. Arranging all of those materials in a way that lets enough oxygen in is a skill that takes practice, and you need to be able to look at your materials and imagine the best arrangement. This is a praxis-heavy task. Fortunately for my coziness goals, I’ve had plenty of practice. Building a fire is also a task that requires a lot of sensory discrimination; you have to use your eyes and ears to determine when and where it’s safe to put your hands near the flames. Even lighting a match is tricky if you can’t tell how much pressure to use. I remember being horrified as a kid, watching my dad place new logs in the fireplace, convinced he would catch on fire as he stuck his hand over the flames. Now, I know that he simply had a good sense of the heat and sparks.

I love sitting in front of a fire in winter. It feels cozy and warm, and it gives me the sense that there’s nowhere else I need to be. There’s the sound, the flickering light, the heat, and all the other parts of being inside by the fire, like hot chocolate and pajamas. Sitting in front of a fire evokes a feeling of security in me, even if I’m already safely indoors. Many people believe that the discovery of fire and how to control it marked an acceleration in human evolution because it offered a new abundance of calories and nutrients from more easily digestible, cooked foods. It may also have served to bring communities together, strengthening bonds and changing the dynamics of an already social genus. Perhaps my brain recognizes this ancient connection and knows that family is nearby and predators will stay away. At the very least, there’s gentle crackling and a nice, orange glow that puts me at ease. Plus, my domesticated canine, who also evolved around fires, likes to rip up the paper and small kindling while I’m getting it started, and that’s always fun to watch. She’s such a good helper.

Stella fire

The Sensory Meditation of Flow

When you’re reading a good book, playing a familiar song on your instrument, doing a word search or a jigsaw puzzle, or any number of absorbing activities, you might be experiencing flow.

A while back, my occupational therapist explained the concept like this:Flow

If the difficulty of whatever you’re doing is too high and you haven’t spent very long doing it (aka: have a low level of skill), you’re likely to be above the “flow” line and feeling stressed.

If the difficulty is low and you just started, you’re probably pretty close to flow from the start. The longer you do it, though, the more skilled you get and the more bored you become.

This is probably pretty intuitive to most people. To stay close to flow, you need to adjust the difficulty level to match your skill. Otherwise, you get either overwhelmed or bored. Everyone has unique sensory needs, so your nervous system might react differently to inputs that create a perfect state of flow for another person. For instance, my ability to follow a cardio dance video is atrocious, but someone with awesome praxis skills might think it’s exactly right for them.

Currently, my favorite leisure activity is embroidery.

embroidery-of-wooden-fence-and-red-poppies

I started out with those pre-packaged kits that have the image inked onto the fabric, like a paint-by-numbers but for stitches. That was great because I didn’t know what I was doing, but as I learned and got more comfortable with it, those kits became a little boring. Now, I make it up as I go, so it takes some focus and creativity but it’s also repetitive and relaxing.

If, like me, you have trouble with sensory discrimination and often don’t know what you’re feeling or what qualities of something you do or don’t like, finding an activity at the right difficulty to produce flow might be tricky. Trial and error is always a good way to approach this. Give the “trial” enough time that you’re able to decide whether you like it or not, and why. When you do find something that gets you to a state of flow, don’t forget to up the difficulty on occasion. The challenge is what makes it interesting!

nighttime time lapse of mountain road curving and car lights driving around pine tree

Sensory Processing Disorder and Driving

Ah, driving. The ultimate achievement of teenage freedom (in the US, at least). For anyone learning to drive, teenage or adult, the convenience and independence of a license is powerful motivation. I’ve been driving for years, now, but it wasn’t an easy process to get my license. At the time, I wasn’t as cognizant of my symptoms, but looking back, I can see why I struggled so much with having Sensory Processing Disorder and driving.

Proprioception in Cars

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) makes it hard for me to interpret sensory stimuli, including proprioceptive information. Proprioception is the sense that tells you where your body is located in space. I struggle with motion sickness on buses, boats, even escalators, because the movement doesn’t match my brain’s sense of where my body should be. Initially, this made driving a car incredibly stressful; relative to your body, the car is not moving, but relative to the ground, it’s moving a LOT. Coordinating the movements of driving with the interpretation of how the car responds took a while to become natural. Once it did, though, it made my motion sickness in cars much better, as long as I’m the one driving.

Peripersonal Space

When you’re driving a car, your “body” sense expands to include the dimensions of the vehicle. This is called “peripersonal space”- the sense that expands and contracts to include the objects in our immediate surroundings. In The Body Has a Mind of its Own, authors Sandra and Matthew Blakesley explain,

“When you drive a car, your peripersonal space expands to include it, from fender to fender, from fender to door, and from tire to roof. As you enter a parking garage with a low ceiling, you can “feel” the nearness of your car’s roof to the height barrier as if it were your own scalp. This is why you instinctively duck when you pass under the barrier.”

Learning how to manage Sensory Processing Disorder and driving took me a while, in part because it was a challenge for me to get a sense of the dimensions of a car. Now that my brain has established it as effectively a part of my body, driving is much simpler. However, there are additional layers of difficulty that, no matter how much I learn, might always be challenging.

car side mirror with city and other cars in reflection
Photo by Onaivi Dania on Unsplash

Visual Challenges

The visual tasks involved in driving can quickly become overwhelming. Monitoring the movement of cars around you, watching for signals, brake lights, and obstacles in the road is already a lot to handle. Add to that the stress of driving in an unfamiliar area and attempting to read street signs and highway exit signs while managing the rest of your visual tasks, and you have a veritable mountain of sensory stimuli to deal with.

Driving with Dyspraxia

I think that the processing power I dedicate to handling visual stimuli while driving leaves little for planning complex movements, known as praxis. I have symptoms of dyspraxia, meaning I have trouble following sequences of actions and, even more so, planning the steps involved in getting from A to B by myself. If I can prepare ahead of time, I’m fine, but I really struggle to make decisions in the moment because I feel like I can’t process all of the information fast enough to take the right action.

Driving with dyspraxia makes me an anxious planner. If I’m going somewhere new, I study Google Maps obsessively, considering the factors I do or don’t like in each route. Is there a highway involved? Can I take a route with fewer lanes? If I miss a turn, how easy would it be to fix? How early should I leave to account for any mistakes? As I’ve become more comfortable with the other aspects of driving- the sensitivity of the pedals and the steering wheel, the dimensions of the car, predicting what other drivers are going to do- I can dedicate more mental energy to handling praxis. I still plan my routes in new places, but I’m more confident in my ability to get back on track if I get lost.

Sensory Processing Disorder and Driving Takes Practice, Practice, Practice

If you’re struggling with Sensory Processing Disorder and driving, an occupational therapist can help you identify your particular difficulties and come up with ways to make them easier. Whether you work with an occupational therapist or not, the best way to get comfortable with driving is to practice. When you’re overstimulated in the car, the last thing you feel like doing is getting back in the driver’s seat, I know. Trust me, I rolled my eyes so hard at everyone who told me that practicing would make it feel more natural; I felt like I just wasn’t made for driving and no amount of practice would change that. I admit- I was wrong. Practice does help, and I find that now that I’m adept at each aspect of driving and can better regulate my nervous system, my sensitivities probably make me a more mindful, safer driver than I would be otherwise.

portrait view of black dog with pointy ears sleeping on bed with pillows

3 Things My Dog Teaches Me About Listening to My Body

Ever since I welcomed my puppy, Stella, into my life, I’ve noticed some things about how she treats her body. Unlike Stella, I have trouble recognizing what my body needs; Sensory Processing Disorder can make it hard to discriminate one feeling from another, and to identify what actions would fix an uncomfortable sensation. My dog, however, is especially in tune with her body. Sometimes I marvel at how good she is at giving herself what she needs. In honor of that, here are three things I’ve learned from Stella about listening to my body.

Test Your Surroundings

Stella has no qualms about finding a new place to hang out, no worries about offending others by moving. She goes from place to place as she wants. If the bed becomes too hot or too soft, she switches to the floor. If she feels too exposed around loud noises, she finds somewhere sheltered to lay.

The number of times I’ve kept myself from moving or adjusting my surroundings because I might stand out is too many to count. The little things can make a big difference in how you see your environment and how you feel in your body. Small adjustments help us regulate our nervous systems– a cold drink can wake you up while a warm one can calm you. Do you like your feet to feel secure, or do you prefer the freedom of open-toed shoes? Break up the monotony of your schedule by riding your bike to school or work every once in a while. I work on the computer a lot, and when my slouch has reached extreme levels, I know it’s time to get up and stretch. Take a page from Stella’s book, and feel free to get comfortable in your environment.

Express Your Emotions

Dogs don’t lie about how they feel; if you know how to read their body language, it’s easy to tell when they’re feeling happy, anxious, confident, or any other reaction to outside stimuli. There’s a certain amount of uncomfortable stimuli that we all must face every day. Maybe you hate the feeling of brushing your teeth, yet you do it because it’s important for your health. Maybe you’re sensitive to temperatures and dislike walking to work in the heat, but have limited transportation options. There are times that we have to prepare ourselves for and recover from unpleasant feelings that are unavoidable. There are also times when we suppress our instincts because we think we “should” be able to handle something. If there’s a way that you or someone else can adjust your surroundings to make you more comfortable, speak up!

Look for Joy

Stella loves a lot of things; she loves barking at rabbits, playing in sprinklers, and rolling in the grass. The things that she enjoys the most are the ones that require spontaneity. She approaches every dog she meets with a play bow; there’s no time like the present to make a new friend. She lives entirely in the moment, and whatever feels right to her is what she does– (sometimes to my immense frustration).

Look for joy in the little things. Find ways to have fun with boring activities. When no input is exciting or fun, we become understimulated and listless. So, jump in those puddles, paint with your fingers, and put your waste paper basket far away so you have to toss things from your desk. I don’t know, whatever brings you joy.

time lapse photo of blue and red lights moving erratically

Science Saturday: Sensory Processing Disorder

Today’s topic is Sensory Processing Disorder. I didn’t have a specific question to answer, so I decided to make this post an overview of our current understanding of SPD. As with all of these posts (so far), it’s important to know that I’m affected by the topic at hand. I’ll do my best to remain objective, but I do have some biases when it comes to SPD.

Sensory Processing Disorder as a Diagnosis

SPD was first described as a construct by Ayres in 1964. At that time, it was known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction. Now, SPD has several subtypes, including Sensory Modulation Disorder.

Sensory Modulation Disorder

Three main categories compose SMD: sensory overresponsivity, underresponsivity, and sensory seeking. Sensory Over-Responsivity (SOR)  can be defined as:

…exaggerated responses to one or more types of sensory stimuli not perceived as threatening, harmful, or noxious by children and adults who are typically developing.

Analysis by different authors of data from a 2004 study that investigated the prevalence of SPD among kindergarten children in a Colorado school district found the prevalence of sensory over-responsivity to be between 2.8 and 6.4%.

Experiencing Sensory Under-Responsivity (SUR) might look like:

…quiet and passive, appearing to disregard stimulation by not responding…[they may have] inadequate body awareness, poor endurance, and movements that are not appropriately graded.

And lastly, sensory seeking, or Sensory Craving (SC), is “…craving sensory stimulation and appearing to be obsessed with obtaining additional sensory input.”

SBMD and SDD

The other two subtypes of SPD are Sensory-Based Motor Disorder, which includes dyspraxia and postural disorder, and Sensory Discrimination Disorder, which can affect one or more sensory systems. A diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder can include symptoms in each of the subtypes; in fact, it’s often a mishmash of seemingly contradictory symptoms that fit into different types.

SPD and its subtypes are included in the 2005 version of the Diagnostic Classification of Mental Health and Developmental Disorders of Infancy and Early Childhood (DC:0-3R). However, it’s not included as its own disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which only perpetuates the idea that SPD symptoms are just behavioral and temperamental issues, rather than a real, neurological diagnosis.

Neurological and Physiological Research

Fortunately, there is evidence supporting SPD as a valid diagnosis. A 2013 study compared the brains of boys with and without SPD (sample size of 40) using diffusion tensor imaging. Significant differences in white matter microstructure were found in the posterior corpus callosum, corona radiata, and thalamic regions. This study used the cardiac vagal tone index to measure the physiologic reactivity of 15 children. The results were significant and showed that the kids with SPD had less effective vagal tone than kids without SPD. This indicates that people with Sensory Processing Disorder may have impaired parasympathetic functioning. I have no reason to doubt this result, I just wish the sample size were larger.

Not Significant?

I wanted to include this study, and as I read through it, I reached the part where they break it to you that the results were not statistically significant. Darn! (Remember when I said I was biased?) In any case, it’s still interesting, and this is part of what science is about; you can still learn something from insignificant results.

An EEG study with a sample size of 53 tested kids’ brain waves by introducing a “conditioning” stimulus followed by a “test” stimulus. The idea is that your brain becomes accustomed to stimuli that it deems safe, so the test stimulus elicits a smaller reaction than the conditioning stimulus. This is called sensory gating. As a group, the kids with sensory processing disorder showed less sensory gating than the comparison group (p= 0.04), but it wasn’t statistically significant when an adjusted alpha level was used. If the results are robust enough, it indicates that people with SPD don’t get conditioned by stimuli like people without SPD. Every instance of a startling stimulus produces the same reaction as the first one did.

Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism

The vast majority of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) also have sensory challenges. Yet, not everyone with SPD also has ASD. Research is beginning to tease apart where the overlaps lie. Using the same imaging technique as in the study above, researchers found differences between the white matter in boys with autism and the white matter in boys with SPD alone. Compared to a control, both groups’ white matter differences overlapped in tracts thought to contribute to sensory processing. However, the boys with ASD had additional white matter differences in tracts linked to social processing. Other research suggests that assessing cognitive styles may be a good way to differentiate between Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Sensory Processing Disorder and Mental Health

If you’ve been keeping up with my blog (if not, welcome), you know that I have sensory processing disorder and depression. I stumbled upon a couple of studies that show correlations between sensory dysfunction and mental disorders. This one, for example, shows that both under-responsiveness and over-responsiveness correlate with depression and impulsivity. Another one suggests that under and over-responsiveness may be “trait” markers for people with major affective disorders. That last one seems like a stretch to me, but my own perception of those studies is that a.) perhaps there’s some neurological connection between the white matter changes of SPD and mental illnesses, and/or b.) it’s tough to live with SPD, leading many with the disorder to develop secondary disorders.

This is a complex topic, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let me know what you think in the comments.

prickly-pears-in-rocky-mountains

Why I Love Hiking: a Sensory Photo Narrative

Mud squelches underneath my boots, and I reach out with my fingers to balance myself against a tree. I can feel the pack on my shoulders, hear birds chirping, and smell the sharp scent of pine needles.

I love hiking both because I love nature and because it fulfills nearly all of my sensory requirements. I can go at my own pace and under the power of my own body; only the weather and the wildlife are out of my control. When the world around you is overwhelming and hard to understand, it’s nice to put on a backpack with everything you’ll need for the day and let your legs carry you just as far as you want to go. Along the way, every element of a hike serves as a sensory “snack”. The vestibular input of balancing on rocks as I cross a stream. The feeling of my arms swinging at my sides as I get into a rhythm. The soft, spongy moss that I pause to touch with my fingertips.

close-up-of-green-moss-on-multi-colored-rock

piece-of-quartz-on-rock-with-dried-moss

 

 

I don’t like the dried moss surrounding it, but I notice a smooth piece of quartz that draws my eye.

 

muddy-hiking-boots-on-feet-of-hiker-sitting-on-large-rock

 

 

Later, we stop for lunch and I study the rust-colored mud on my boots.

 

 

 

two-hiking-backpacks-on-a-rock-in-the-rocky-mountains-on-a-sunny-day

 

 

My pack feels secure; it’s a comforting weight. We get up to investigate the surrounding plants, and I look back at our lunch spot. It’s breathtaking in the sunlight.

 

 

 

 

black-dog-in-profile-sitting-with-hiking-day-dog-pack-on-back

 

I hear my dog lapping up some water from her bowl, and I take a moment to appreciate her presence.

 

 

 

 

 

We find some prickly pears and admire their toughness. Centers chewed through, their spiny armor breached, they continue to survive. We don’t touch them; we just look at the color and shape of them.

prickly-pears-in-rocky-mountains

Across the path, a Ponderosa pine stands tall and broad. This one isn’t in the sun, but I gently scratch the bark and lean in to smell it. Warm Ponderosa pine bark smells like vanilla, and it’s one of my favorite parts of hiking. This one offers a very faint fragrance. It smells like vanilla and fresh cookies and hiking and happiness.

ponderosa-pine-bark

After lunch, we decide that it’s time to head back. Back through the forest, back through the mud, back through the tall grass at the base of the mountain. When we get home, I settle on the lawn with my dog, our muscles tired but happy, and our senses satisfied. Time for a well-deserved nap.

black-dog-sleeping-on-side-in-grassy-lawn

worm's-eye-view-of-one-bare-cherry-blossom-tree-and-one-with-blossoms-against-blue-sky

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!

photo-of-open-day-planner-with-pencil-on-top-and-cup-of-coffee-nearby

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.