What Sensory Sensitivity Feels Like To Neurodiverse Adults & Kids

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Sensory sensitivity can be a very perplexing phenomenon that's often overlooked. 

The brain is wired by millions of years of evolution to know that its priority is to keep you alive. The kinds of sensory information that get the most attention in your brains are the stuff that seems to pose a threat to your safety and survival. 

When you accurately perceive threats — even something as simple as feeling that mosquito land and swatting it away — you keep yourself healthy and safe.

You defend yourself. You have fleeting moments of life feeling uncomfortable — a little stress — but you're able to address it and move on.

However sensory sensitivity in adults and children causes levels of discomfort, anxiety, distress, and overwhelm in situations that feel "perfectly normal" to others.

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What is sensory sensitivity or sensory processing sensitivity?

Imagine if your sensory systems were overly sensitive to incoming information.

That clothing tag on the back of your neck might feel like a tarantula. Or the fluffies in your socks might feel like shards of glass. What then?

You’re much more likely to be living in a state of constant stress. But whereas swatting a mosquito may seem reasonable to most, having a meltdown because your sock has fluffies in them would likely be seen as ridiculous.

But, for you, it’s not. It genuinely feels unsafe.

The simplest definition of sensory sensitivity is an unusually strong, very negative, fearful response to something that's otherwise safe, not toxic, and not noxious in any way.

It's the perception that a safe sensation is threatening or harmful.

That’s why, to the hypersensitive person, the fluffies in your socks feel like glass shards, why the clothing tag in your neck feels like a tarantula walking on your back, or why that gentle kiss on your cheek feels like a slap.

For someone with a hypersensitive tactile (or touch) system, this is how they experience the world.

Sensory sensitivity in adults and children leads to hypersensitivity to sensations, sights, sounds, smells, and tastes.

It can be extreme enough where even sensitivity to the experience of the movement against gravity (climbing a ladder), or distances and speeds (like playground equipment and amusement park rides) can trigger a reaction. 

That makes the potentially negative experiences for someone with sensory processing sensitivity almost endless. 

What happens when sensory sensitivity makes someone feel threatened?

You experience a sympathetic stress response, otherwise known as fight, flee, or freeze. Your behavior reflects these stress states.

In fight, you might find yourself yelling, screaming, kicking, shouting, punching, hitting, or generally being out of control with your body or words.

In flight, you try to avoid or actively run away from what you perceive as threatening.

And when you’re truly overwhelmed, you simply shut down.

This can look like passive avoidance, but more often, it can represent a very high state of stress and not a deliberate attempt to be "difficult" or defiant.

When parents and other caregivers don’t understand what’s happening for their highly sensitive child, they continue to place "average" demands on the child and are understandably confused by the emotionally distraught behaviors that result.

Most perplexing to the parent is that their child’s emotional outbursts are unexpected, unpredictable, and disproportionate to the situation they're in.

When a child or adult is stressed by the average experiences of daily life, there’s no way to predict when they’ve reached their limit. It's the last grain of rice that tips the scale. 

The response may seem disproportionate, but not if you consider all the other stressful sensory experiences of their day.

A child who's reached their limit may throw a colossal tantrum because their brother tapped them on the shoulder to get their attention.

To make matters more complicated, while not a diagnostic criterion, sensory hypersensitivity (along with other sensory processing disorders) can be present as part of other neurodevelopmental diagnoses.

This includes, but is not limited to anxiety disorders, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, FASD, and oppositional defiance disorder.

The longer the issue goes undiagnosed, the more confusion and conflict can take place between the hypersensitive individual and well-intentioned, but uninformed caregivers. 

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Sensory processing sensitivity often affects an individual's ability to: 

1. Learn and develop life skills such as self-feeding, dressing, bathing, and brushing teeth.

2. Engage successfully with others in developmentally appropriate environments like school, grocery stores, or playgrounds.

3. Manage emotions in socially appropriate ways for a child’s age.

Over time, the more often a child experiences a shift into fight, flight, or freeze states, the more likely it is that this stress state becomes the default way of being in the world.

They'll seem like they have an irritable, easily annoyed temperament. And they’re often difficult to soothe.

To manage the chronic sense of threat and anxiety they feel, sensory sensitive children can become more picky, rigid, avoidant, and defiant.

This is especially true if their default response is fight or flight.

But if they go into freeze mode, they may just look like children who need more stimulation — something to wake them up and engage them.

Unfortunately, that only increases the child’s sense of threat and overwhelm. That’s why it’s especially important to understand the sensory processing needs of children who seem passively avoidant.

What happens if sensory sensitivity is not addressed?

When sensory hypersensitivities are not addressed, children often become more anxious and defiant.

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The parent-child relationship is highly conflictual and children experience life as one painful (potentially traumatic) experience after another.

If children have gone years without their sensory hypersensitivities being understood and addressed, they become anxious, irritable, easily frustrated adults who don’t understand that others do not experience the world the same way they do.

How could they? This invariably leads to difficulties in adult relationships, workplaces, and life in general. Diagnoses of anxiety disorders and depression are highly likely outcomes.

The important thing to remember is that there's help available. 

Completing a clinically meaningful sensory assessment (way beyond a checklist) is vital to understanding a child’s emotional experience and behavioral responses.

This allows parents and other caregivers to meet their child’s needs for comfort and care in ways that feel comforting and caring to the child. 

A thorough sensory assessment includes a detailed history of pregnancy, childbirth, and early childhood developmental milestones.

While genetics and epigenetics are key contributing factors, lived experiences — particularly traumatic experiences at any time in life — can create and heighten sensitivities.

Once there's an understanding of the child’s experience, parents can then co-create:

1. Relationships that are attuned and responsive to their child’s (sensory, social, emotional, attachment, and developmental) needs.

2. Environments that provide stability, predictability, respite, and support so they can have the "down time" they need for optimal learning, development, and functioning on a daily basis

3. Lifestyles that help a child feel grounded and safe to combat their frequently triggered stress responses, while still challenging their growth and development

How the whole family deals with sensory sensitivity. 

When one member of the family is anxious, picky, rigid, and defiant because the world feels overwhelming, it's quite likely that other family members have been asked to accommodate them in order to avoid "triggering" upsets.

This invariably can lead to frustration and resentment. 

Your excitable, outgoing child has to be extra quiet to avoid overwhelming your sensitive child. Or, as a parent, you must be less enthusiastic and playful than you normally would.

Suppressing your joyful nature doesn’t feel right. That’s why interventions can’t just end with meeting the needs of one child in a family.  

All family members have sensory processing needs and preferences that also need to be addressed. Addressing the whole family’s needs supports the optimal functioning of everyone.

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Judith Pinto is an Occupational Therapist in Alberta, Canada. The focus of her practice is integrative psychotherapy for neurodiverse children and adults. Judith helps families discover if sensory sensitivities are impacting their unique dynamics. 

This article was originally published at kyokanconnect.com. Reprinted with permission from the author.