Sensory Processing Disorder Vs. Sensory Overload
What’s the difference? And what can help?
Here at CTC, we talk a lot about sensory processing. But what exactly is it? Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD, is a condition in which the brain has difficulty processing and responding to sensory information. These senses include the five senses most are familiar with– visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), tactile (touch), olfactory (smelling), and gustatory (tasting)– as well as: vestibular (how our body interprets movement), proprioceptive (our sense of our body position in space) and interoception (our ability to feel internal sensations in our body). While occupational therapists directly treat sensory processing disorders, all disciplines of therapy are familiar with this disorder and are trained to recognize when a referral to an OT is necessary to diagnose and treat this condition. At our clinic, of course this occurs with children. But what about teens and adults? What does SPD look like in older populations?
Adults with SPD, like children, may exhibit a variety of sensory difficulties that have a negative impact on their everyday activities. Some of these challenges may include:
- Hugging; being touched; holding hands
- Wearing tags or coarse fabrics
- Loud noises (e.g., noisy restaurants, emergency vehicles, fireworks, etc)
- Going to the beach (e.g., sitting on/stepping in dry or wet sand)
- Smelling perfumes or colognes
- Wearing shoes
- Sticky hands
- Haircuts/hair brushing
Today, many adults with SPD have gone their whole lives “under the radar,” as they may not have received any treatment for their issues as a child and had to develop their own unique set of coping strategies, if any. Or, adolescents or adults may have received treatment as a childhood that was beneficial to them, but as their social situations and living spaces changed, new sensory challenges arose. These individuals often develop a lack of self-confidence, especially if they don’t understand why they experience the world in the way they do. They may avoid social situations that trigger their sensory responses, such as restaurants and bars, the beach, the movies or parties, which can often make friendships and relationships more challenging.
We’ve all experienced sensory overload at some point in our lives. As a student, it may be trying to focus on an exam when the ticking clock sounds like a roar. As a professional, it may be attempting to complete an important assignment while your inbox keeps dinging with new messages and requests. As a parent, it might occur when your kids won’t stop bickering in the back seat when you’re trying to focus on driving. In all of these scenarios, the brain has a difficult time managing incoming sensory information. The result? Feeling incredibly overwhelmed.
Sensory difficulties may accompany a variety of disorders, including autism, ADHD, anxiety, and PTSD, although anyone can experience sensory overload without a specific diagnosis. Considering our current society, it’s no wonder that everyone can relate to sensory overload! We are constantly inundated with information from television, email and our social media accounts. So do we all have SPD?
ADDitudemag.com defines SPD as, “a neurological condition that interferes with the body’s ability to receive messages from the senses, and convert those messages into appropriate motor and behavioral responses.”