What I Wish People Knew About Sensory Processing Issues

By
Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A brain lit up, with lights connecting everywhere to show sensory connections.

I’ve had sensory processing disorder my entire life. As a kid, it meant that I sometimes went to occupational therapy to practice my cursive handwriting and speech. As an adult, it might take a few minutes for me to recognize someone I don’t see very often, or I’ll laugh at a joke a second off-beat because it took my brain some time to ‘hear’ it. Sometimes I ask questions about one topic when the person is already onto the next, or I’m walking and don’t hear someone call out my name.

Here’s what I wish people knew about what it’s like to live with sensory processing disorder:

Communication & Listening

  • Please be patient with me if I don’t hear you (correctly or at all) the first time. This goes double if we’re talking on the phone, or we’re in a crowded or noisy place. I might have difficulty understanding what you’re saying or it take take me a few minutes.
  • A lot of things are hilarious. Especially things I misheard, misread, or didn’t pronounce correctly. I like to laugh at myself. Not everyone’s like that, though, so check in with someone before you turn their faux pas into an inside joke.
  • When I’m overloaded (or under-stimulated), I might forget things. I might say things that don’t make sense. I might repeat information, ask more questions than usual, ask you to confirm things, or sound confused. Please bear with me until I’m in a better space sensory-wise.
  • Please don’t tell me something “isn’t that bad” or make any kind of judgment about a sensory environment without asking me. Let me check it out for myself.
  • I love it when people are genuinely empathetic—even if you have no sensory processing issues at all—and willing to listen to me and try to understand. It means the world to me when, for example, my partner lets me tell her about why I’m having a tough time driving that day and would prefer to walk, or when a friend lets me complain about how I’ve been struggling to find the right words for a few hours.

Environment

  • Sensory processing issues can be all over the place. I can spot a cool outfit a few blocks away and also not see a bicyclist coming in my peripheral vision.
  • Sensory processing challenges can be physically painful. If I get overloaded, I can get debilitating migraines, feel dizzy, and have nausea and stomach pains. Sometimes I need to take a sick day from work and social life and lay down in a dark room.
  • If I’m asking to make a change to my environment or leave, I’m being serious. A request isn’t just me politely asking, it means I need it. I can’t function sitting at a desk in the middle of an open office, or listen to your long, serious story in a loud nightclub.
  • Adults have sensory processing issues, too. This is a lifelong situation, no matter the diagnosis. We may learn better coping strategies and know best how to seek out environments that work for us—but we still have it. I won’t grow out of this, and I’ll be asking to turn off the bright overhead lights when I’m 80.
  • Any time I ask to be in a specific seat in a room or choose to face a certain direction, it’s on purpose. If I’m totally comfortable anywhere, it won’t matter. But if you see me asking for or seeking out that one seat, there’s a reason.
  • Sensory processing issues sometimes run my life. I’ve had to cancel plans, change my work/school environment, take sick days, and map out my travel around my sensory environment.
  • One of the major reasons I work remotely is because I can totally control the sensory environment at home—and I’m SO much more effective when 100% of my focus is on my work, and not the music blaring from the desk next to me or a phone ringing down the hall. This isn’t true for all people with sensory processing issues, but it’s a legitimate reason to choose remote work.
  • It helps a lot if you offer me alternatives. Instead of, “Let’s go to this restaurant,” it could be, “Here are three restaurants I was thinking of. What would you like?” Instead of, “We’re all getting together to plan our volunteering at the library, bring a laptop,” say, “We’re all getting together to plan our volunteering. Where would you be comfortable meeting?”

Transportation

  • Driving is a challenge—or at least it can be for many of us. If someone tells you they don’t drive or only drive under certain conditions, believe them and don’t give them the fifth degree.
  • Every single person with sensory processing issues is not the same. My friend wears earplugs on the subway, while the subway noise doesn’t bother me. But then I have serious trouble with driving in crowded cities, and he’s fine with it.
  • If you’re someone who runs, jogs, or bicycles, please remember that not everyone can see and hear you coming. (Beyond people like me with sensory processing disorder, there are also blind, visually impaired, d/Deaf, and hearing impaired people!) Don’t get upset with someone if they don’t get out of the way in time. Approach other people with the knowledge that they might not be able to see you running up beside them, or hear you yell out, “On the left!”

At the end of the day, I’m a person. The best way you can support me is to remember that I’m me, and always ask what I need or want in the moment. Instead of assuming, listen to people with sensory processing issues and ask us what we need.