What the heck is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)? Also called Sensory Integration Disorder, or, as I call it, “My brain hurts from all the noises and lights and junk. I can’t function or anything, so I’m just gonna go to bed.”
I have found that nobody knows what SPD is, or just how deeply it can impact a person’s life. So darn it all! I’m making a post about it.
First, what is sensory processing?
All of our senses are processed through our nervous system. That is, information is collected by our senses and sent to the brain where it is processed and sorted. Once this is done, your brain tells you how to respond to that information.
Second, what the disarray is sensory processing disorder?
The disorder part comes into play when the act of sensory processing goes haywire. The sensory information gathered by the nervous system is not correctly interpreted by the brain, which results in numerous symptoms and behaviors.
What happens then?
Well my friends, if your brain does not know how to understand the information that it is being fed, you’d better believe that your response to it will also be quite messed up.
For people with sensory disorders, the resulting behaviors from a malfunctioning sensory system can vary tremendously. For some, they turn-inward and become still and quiet. For others, they lash out and have a loud, head-banging, arm-flailing meltdown.
Personally, my body shuts-down. I cannot talk (or make sense when I do speak), or walk straight. I am disoriented, irritable, crying, and feeling completely detached and ill. The environment becomes simply too much to process, so my brain tells me to just turn off for a while.
What’s it like living in a sensory world?
As you can imagine, living with SPD is, shall we say, challenging. All aspects of living on planet Earth require that you have a functioning sensory system. This is especially true in Westernized societies where sensory stimulation is considered fun and enjoyable. Of course, it becomes less fun and less enjoyable when your brain cannot process sensory signals the way they should. The world becomes unexpected, chaotic, frightening, and confusing. Basic aspects of life such as taking a shower, cooking dinner, seeing friends, working, going to school, watching television, or eating become a battle.
Imagine showering if the feeling of water dripping on you made you want to run for your life, or the water temperature feels painfully cold for you, but to everyone else and their brother, it feels fine.
Imagine going to school where the bus is bumpy and the radio is painfully loud, and the seats are shiny and feel different and ugly on your skin. The children are noisy and they move fast, and the teacher gives you white paper that hurts your eyes to look at. Your hand won’t hold the pencil, and the lines and words are jumping and moving. In gym, you are terrified of climbing the cargo net but you love crashing yourself into the blue cushy mats. In art, the thought of finger-painting makes you cry, but you love cutting paper or looking at shiny scissors.
Imagine you can’t get a job because the store has fluorescent lights and the customers are loud, and have screaming children. Your job requires you complete tasks for countless hours in a sensory-filled environment. Your clothes are itchy and too tight. The feeling of denim or fleece is awful, but you have to wear it. There’s a tag in the shirt that makes you want to scream.
Imagine you try to eat dinner but the smell of food makes you gag, and the feeling of the food in your mouth is unbearable. But you love to touch it with your fingers because your body tells you that that makes more sense, and it doesn’t hurt.
WHAT I’VE LEARNED…
Here I am now, age 22. My sensory disorder still plagues my life. When I reached my teen years, I found that therapy to help me cope with this disorder was virtually non-existent. They assumed that because I was 13 years old, I was able to do all the therapy on my own. I find this disturbing.It’s not like sensory problems go away. They can be managed and treated, but as of right now, this problem is not curable.
Even worse is the fact that the majority of people – both the general public and professionals – are either blissfully unaware of sensory disorders, or they don’t believe in them at all. Yes, you heard me. Many “professionals” do not think sensory problems exist.
When I ask people if they know about SPD, they respond either “no,” or the conversation goes like this:
Yeah like karate. UGH. BOW TO YOUR SENSEI.
SOME MORE THINGS I’VE LEARNED…
SPD is unrecognized in many people, aka: loads of people living with this disorder go undiagnosed. These people – young and old – have struggled their entire lives being deeply impacted by the challenges of living with sensory issues. I also feel that the sensory components in autism are severely neglected. In fact, I believe sensory problems are a huge factor in autism and the reason why autistic people behave the way they do. Autism is not just about communication problems.
People generally don’t know much about autism (like the gentlemen in the illustration above) even though a huge number of the population live with this neurological disorder.
When researching autism, I found hardly any information about the connection to sensory problems. Everything was focused on communication and social skills. I recently read Temple Grandin’s newest book The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum. I was delighted to FINALLY see that she too noticed a huge lack of discussion about sensory problems in autistic people. Temple Grandin, you stole my hypothesis!!
I believe autistic behaviors stem from sensory overload (or under-load). Meaning, autistic people behave the way they do (social problems, little to no communication, meltdown, stimming, detachment/zoning out, need for routine, etc) as a way for their mind/body to cope with the sensory processing malfunction.
THIS, I feel is the most neglected part of autism, and it is neglected because sensory processing disorders are neglected across the board.