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What Everyone Should Know About Sensory Processing Disorder

Rachel Schneider
January 6, 2015
Photo by Getty Images
January 6, 2015

I didn't just wake up one morning, wipe the sleep away from the corners of my eyes with balled fists, and decide that I had a hidden neurological disability — although that's how my Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) seemingly came into my life and into my consciousness. One day I was a woman with anxieties and some peculiar quirks, and the next I was a woman with SPD, someone whose brain struggles to properly receive and process sensory information.

The proclamation by my occupational therapist explained every nook and cranny of my history and every twist and turn of my existence. It was as if I'd finally come to my senses. Aha! I exclaimed as I simultaneously winced in the presence of a blaring siren. Yes! I cried out from the middle of a moving crowd, agitated and frightened, palms sweaty.

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The diagnosis explained the oddities that made me: the need to sleep under piles of blankets with the air conditioning set to Arctic levels; the urge to run all soft things through my fingertips, regardless of their origin or ownership; the full-bodied bear hugs I sought out from loved ones, co-workers, near strangers. My body's urges and dislikes swung like a pendulum, and I was just along for the ride.

You know someone with SPD, by the way. Surprise! We all do. Most children, teens, or adults with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have SPD as well — although many of us, myself included, just have the SPD. Numerous adults are still coming to their senses, waking up one morning with sleep-eyes and uncovering the biggest, underlying truth about who they are and how they interact with their environment. Some of these truths have been decades in the making and come as quite a shock to loved ones and friends. To us, it's like we can finally breathe for the first time in our lives. It's real, we think to ourselves, hallelujah. It even has a name.

Here are a few things that you should know about these sensational people:

1. We have a neurological condition with a biological origin.

Unless you're handy with complex medical scanning technology (yep, me neither), you won't be able to see SPD. That's where the research team at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital San Francisco and their groundbreaking studies come in. In 2013, Dr. Elysa Marco and her team discovered that SPD has a biological basis, and in 2014, they discovered brain wiring differences in people with SPD and ASD, as well as the unique wiring of people who have both conditions.

2. SPD impacts how we process sensory information.

A pioneer in the field of SPD, Dr. A. Jean Ayres, likened SPD to a neurological traffic jam. We all take in sensory information every moment of the day, from turning on your office lamp to smelling sticky buns baking in the oven.

For those of us with SPD, however, we sometimes feel as if we're being bombarded by the senses. The light is overwhelmingly bright, the buns are cloyingly sweet-smelling. Some of us have the opposite problem — we're not taking in enough information. The light is too dim, let's flip on all the switches in the house. The buns don't smell sweet enough, let's put our nose into their cinnamon-y center.

3. We do some seemingly "weird" things, but pay us no mind.

I have in my possession a half-dollar-sized turtle figurine. What was once his lush coat of faux-fur is now errant patches from decades of rubbing him between my fingers. People with SPD frequently need to fidget to help regulate our often-dysregulated sensory system. We use deep-pressure brushes and covet earplugs. We sleep under weighted blankets. We sometimes bite, jump, push, and sprawl on the floor in a desperate effort to connect to our bodies. It's not you, really, it's us — and we're OK with this.

4. We are often uncomfortable, but we are capable of feeling better.

People with SPD often feel fearful, detached, distracted, agitated, sad and angry. Secondary feelings of embarrassment and shame are also common, especially in teens and adults who believe that they "should" feel and behave in a particular manner more commonly accepted by society. With occupational therapy, physical and vision therapy, and psychotherapy, and in the presence of the right combination of sensory input, people with SPD can feel calm, centered, engaged, grounded, peaceful, strong and able.

5. We appreciate your understanding and support.

In this beautiful, complex, and diverse world, neurodiversity is just another piece of our human puzzle. We're not all wired the same, but hey, isn't that what makes life interesting?

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Rachel Schneider author page.
Rachel Schneider

Rachel S. Schneider, M.A., MHC is a mental health counselor, author, advocate, and proud SPD adult. Rachel authors the blog Coming to My Senses and the affiliated website for SPD adults, and leads a Facebook support group for adults with SPD. She frequently blogs for the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation, writes for Sensory Focus Magazine, and was most recently featured in The Body is Not An Apology's online magazine and on the SPD Parent Zone's Podcast, Episode 3.