Introduction to Sensory Processing Disorder for Adults
By Tesni Linden, December 2021
Sensory Processing Disorder, abbreviated as SPD, is a condition common among children and adults with neurodivergences, including autism and ADHD. At the basic level, SPD is when your brain can’t sort (process) some or all of the input it is receiving from your senses. SPD is also known as Sensory Integration Disorder (SID), sensory overwhelm, sensory overload, and sometimes just sensory issues.
How Does Sensory Overwhelm Occur?
Our brains are constantly receiving information from our senses, every minute of every day! In neurotypical people, most of this input is filtered by the brain and only the most important or useful information makes it to their conscious awareness. In people with sensory processing disorder, though, the brain can struggle to filter this input in an efficient or effective way.
This means that for people with SPD, more information from their senses is making it through to their conscious awareness, which can be distracting, confusing, and overwhelming.
Moreover, when your brain is struggling to process the information it’s receiving, or to filter the important from the unimportant, you can experience the excess input as discomfort or pain, or perceive an unexpected sound or touch as a threat.
What Can You Do About Sensory Overwhelm?
As with other neurodivergences, SPD is a life-long condition that can be managed but not cured. There is some debate in the medical community about whether SPD can be diagnosed on its own, or if it must go hand-in-hand with a diagnosis of autism or ADHD. At the time of writing this, SPD is not recognized as a standalone diagnosis.
Occupational therapists (OTs) and/or mental health professionals familiar with SPD can help you learn to identify triggers, have strategies to help you recognize and deal with sensory overload, and improve your quality of life. At the end of this post, there’s a list we’ve put together of both informational articles and scientific research related to SPD.
The majority of scientific research, as well as informal articles, is focused on SPD in children. Research related to SPD in adults is less common. Most of the sources consulted for this post, for example, were written for parents and adult caregivers looking for information for their children. A few sources are specific to SPD in adults.
This is just a quick summary of sensory overwhelm to get you started. Have questions or ideas? Leave a comment below!
Want to learn more about sensory processing challenges?
Here at Neurodiverging, we’re striving to provide information for adult, late-identified SPD people (like Danielle and Tesni!) as well as parents seeking information and support for their neurodivergent kids with SPD (like Danielle!)
Here are some of the most popular posts about sensory overwhelm on Neurodiverging:
- Sensory Processing Disorder + 3 Tips to Avoid Sensory Overwhelm
- Neurodivergent Spoons and Forks: Autism and Fatigue
- Autistic Burnout and Autistic Rest with Carole Jean Whittington
- Interoception, Thirst, and Sensory Overwhelm
- 4 Tips to Breastfeed When You’re Autistic
- Falling, Jumping, Climbing, Always Crashing? Hyposensitivity Could Be the Culprit.
- 3 Ways Your Partner’s Adult ADHD Influences Your Relationship (+ Advice to Improve)
- Auditory Processing Disorder at School with Suzanne DeMallie
- My Favorite Earplugs for Autism Sound Sensitivity<
Sources and Further Reading:
About spd. (n.d.). STAR Institute. Retrieved December 23, 2021, from https://sensoryhealth.org/basic/about-spd
Bunim, J. (2013, July 9). Breakthrough study reveals biological basis for sensory processing disorders in kids | uc san francisco. University of California San Francisco. https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2013/07/107316/breakthrough-study-reveals-biological-basis-sensory-processing-disorders-kids
Conway, C. (2018, Summer). The unbearable sensation of being. University of California San Francisco Magazine. https://magazine.ucsf.edu/unbearable-sensation-being
Deweerdt, S. (2016, June 1). Talking sense: What sensory processing disorder says about autism. Spectrum | Autism Research News. https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/talking-sense-what-sensory-processing-disorder-says-about-autism/
Goodman, B. (n.d.). Sensory processing disorder: Causes, symptoms, and treatment. WebMD. Retrieved December 22, 2021, from https://www.webmd.com/children/sensory-processing-disorder
Kranowitz, C. S. (2016, November 28). Why you feel too much (And how to cope). ADDitude. https://www.additudemag.com/slideshows/hypersensitivity-sensory-processing-disorder-overview/
Matlen, T. (2012, November 14). Too loud, too bright, too sticky! ADDitude. https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-sensory-overload-spd-and-adhd-in-children/
Miller, L. J., & Fuller, D. A. (2007). Sensational kids: Hope and help for children with sensory processing disorder (SPD). Perigee/Penguin.
Owen, J. P., Marco, E. J., Desai, S., Fourie, E., Harris, J., Hill, S. S., Arnett, A. B., & Mukherjee, P. (2013). Abnormal white matter microstructure in children with sensory processing disorders. NeuroImage: Clinical, 2, 844–853. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nicl.2013.06.009
Pera, G. (2011, April 14). Sounds like auditory processing disorder. ADDitude. https://www.additudemag.com/central-auditory-processing-disorder/
Rodden, J. (2017, February 15). What is sensory processing disorder? ADDitude. https://www.additudemag.com/what-is-sensory-processing-disorder/
Schaaf, R., Benevides, T., Blanche, E., Brett-Green, B., Burke, J., Cohn, E., Koomar, J., Lane, S., Miller, L., May-Benson, T., Parham, D., Reynolds, S., & Schoen, S. (2010). Parasympathetic functions in children with sensory processing disorder. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 4, 4. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnint.2010.00004
Scheerer, N. E., Curcin, K., Stojanoski, B., Anagnostou, E., Nicolson, R., Kelley, E., Georgiades, S., Liu, X., & Stevenson, R. A. (2021). Exploring sensory phenotypes in autism spectrum disorder. Molecular Autism, 12(1), 67. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13229-021-00471-5
Sensory processing disorder. (2021). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sensory_processing_disorder&oldid=1061594369
Sensory processing disorder | michigan medicine. (n.d.). University of Michigan. Retrieved December 23, 2021, from https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/te7831
Sensory processing disorder—Types and definition. (2018, August 22). Otsimo. https://otsimo.com/en/sensory-processing-disorder-definition-types/
Taccone, A. (2021, November 15). New study clarifies sensory processing in kids with autism. CTVNews London. https://london.ctvnews.ca/new-study-clarifies-sensory-processing-in-kids-with-autism-1.5666482
Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder. (n.d.). STAR Institute. Retrieved December 23, 2021, from https://sensoryhealth.org/basic/understanding-sensory-processing-disorder
Watson, K. (2021, September 14). Sensory overload: Symptoms, causes, related conditions, and more. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/sensory-overload
Tesni Linden lives in a quiet corner of New England with a chatty, sweetheart of a feline and an amazing, supportive partner. Tesni has so many interests including reading, yarn crafts, and learning about the insects, arachnids, and amphibians inhabiting Tesni’s yard (and sometimes, house). Keep an eye out for future posts by Tesni here on Neurodiverging!