Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) in Adults

What happens when sensory processing disorder is left untreated in a child? Does that child grow out of their sensory seeking or avoiding behaviors? Are adults affected by SPD? How do sensory difficulties present for an adult? Can adults be treated for Sensory Processing  Disorder?

Perhaps you know an adult who you suspect has sensory processing disorder, or maybe you’ve noticed that you struggle with certain sensory input and want to know what to do about it. 

Sensory processing disorder is most often diagnosed in children, though when not treated can carry over into adulthood. Since many adults who had sensory processing difficulties as a child struggled in their younger years, they may also have problems with anxiety and depression as an adult.

What does sensory processing disorder look like in adults?

Adults who struggle with processing sensory input might have difficulty in everyday situations that others don’t seem bothered by. They may wonder why they don’t enjoy going to the movies or social gatherings, or why grocery shopping is stressful. Some may notice they have a hard time focusing in certain situations, or that they focus better when they are able to be physically active or moving when needing to work on a problem. 

Let’s look at some examples of how adults may be affected by Sensory Processing Disorder. We’ll discuss them in relation to the seven senses we experience daily. 

Tactile (touch): 

  • Dislike unexpected or light touch
  • Prefer certain fabrics and avoid certain clothing due to texture
  • Doesn’t like to have their hands dirty
  • May not notice that clothing isn’t straight (shirts may be askew)
  • Doesn’t notice if they have food on their hands or face

Visual (sight):

  • Struggle to find desired item in busy store or on shelf
  • Dislikes bright lights
  • Feel overwhelmed in certain stores with lots of visual stimulus 

Auditory (hearing):

  • Dislikes or startles at loud or unexpected noises
  • Prefer quiet space opposed to crowded/noisy environment
  • Like loud music
  • Has to have extra noise (tv, radio, etc.) to focus

Olfactory (smell):

  • Struggles with unpleasant smells
  • Overly sensitive to smells
  • Does not perceive smells that others do

Gustation (taste): 

  • Limitations in your diet due to the texture of certain foods
  • Seeks out strongly flavored, crunchy, or spicy food
  • Difficulties with soft, mushy, or bland food

Vestibular (movement/balance): 

  • Gets car sick, needs to be in the front seat or be the driver
  • Feel insecure or lack confidence when walking on unsteady surfaces
  • Loses balance often

Proprioception (body awareness):

  • Seems more clumsy than others
  • Bumps into things often
  • Likes to be in confined or tight spaces (sleeping bag, heavy quilt)

Can adults be treated for SPD?

Most treatment for SPD occurs with children. When we are younger, due to neuroplasticity, our brains are better adapted to make changes. Young children who struggle with SPD can benefit from performing a sensory diet daily. Sensory Sid Activity Cards are a great way to add sensory activities into daily life. 

But what about the adult who never received treatment, or who did but continues to have difficulties? That person can receive treatment too! Many techniques used with children to assist in SPD can be adapted for adults. 

Remedial techniques to help someone better process sensory information can be implemented. Adaptations to help cope or better manage difficult situations can also be very helpful. Using a sensory diet to help with overall sensory processing can be effective as well. 

Some Occupational Therapists (OT) specialize in working with adults who have SPD. Finding the appropriate therapist to help your situation will be the most beneficial. Though a good place to start is by learning about what sensory processing is, and how it affects you. 

What can I do?

Keep a notebook and jot down when you feel overwhelmed or anxious. As well as what makes you feel calm and regulated. Keep track of these times and look for common themes.  

Do you feel stressed after a social gathering, perhaps you struggle with all the auditory stimulus from a situation like this? 

Do you struggle to make your way through a grocery store? Maybe all the visual stimuli are difficult for you to process?

When do you feel your best? After a good workout or a walk with the family? If your body craves more proprioceptive input engaging your muscles should help you feel regulated. 

Do you like the feeling of a tight hug from a loved one or the weight of your winter comforter? Great! Use that knowledge! Deep passive proprioceptive input is a great technique to use to help you feel calmer when stressed or overwhelmed. 

Pay attention to the eb and flow of over-stimulated and under-stimulated times in your life you will be able to connect the dots and have a better understanding of how sensory input affects you and how your body processes it. 

And, with that knowledge, you will be in a better place to help yourself. You will learn why you respond to situations a certain way, and when you have a better understanding of what is going on you become empowered.

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