Understanding the Occupational Therapy Needs of Adults with Sensory Processing Disorder

Adult with Sensory Processing DisorderSPD does not magically disappear with childhood. Problems with sensory processing are commonly found in adults.

The American Occupational Therapy Association published an article in the June 6th, 2011 edition of the journal “OT Practice” that summarized the results of dozens of studies confirming reality for adults who live with SPD.  [Open PDF in separate window]

Although we adults often develop coping strategies, Sensory Processing Disorder may continue to impact aspects of our lives, from how we spend our leisure and social time to our career choices and our ability to have romantic relationships.

Informing Health Workers and Policy Makers

Most of the world has never heard of SPD. There are adults who continue to struggle, just as they did through childhood. They don’t know why they are anxious and depressed. They are baffled as to why they are unable to tolerate certain sensations and situations that others take for granted.

Disseminating information about Sensory Processing Disorder could provide self-understanding and strategies to pave the road to greater freedom and happiness for people trapped in a sensory nightmare.

The AOTA made a compelling case for putting their information and practices into the hands of health workers and policy makers throughout our society. It looks to them, and to me, like effectively addressing SPD in adults could have a positive impact on everything from mental health interventions to reducing juvenile delinquency and teen accident rates.

The article listed 36 different references. I personally did not read the referenced studies. I must add here that when the article mentioned the number of people involved in a particular study the numbers were small, from one to 12 people. So I concluded these studies weren’t very large. But everything I read rings true with what I know personally and what I hear from my friends who live with SPD.

SPD and Mental Health

A lot of the work documented in the article concerned mental health professionals because the symptoms of SPD are often seen together with problems from anxiety and depression to severe mental health issues. These studies confirmed the need to ditch the common belief that SPD symptoms are the result of common mental or emotional problems. Evidence is proving that our more common mental health issues are caused by, or exist beside, our problems with sensory processing. Adults with SPD know this to be true because our own experience shows that when we address our sensory issues our mental and emotional problems improve.

Adult Sensory Defensiveness and Anxiety/Depression

A lot was said in the article about the relationship between sensory defensiveness and anxiety and depression. Dealing with A&D is a topic of great importance to me and my friends with SPD. It is discussed nearly nonstop in the SPD circles I attend. The data supports what we hypersensitive adults with SPD already know – sensory defensiveness makes us much more likely to develop anxiety and depression.

Duh! It’s only difficult for us sensory defensive adults to go places, engage in activities and attend functions that involve high levels of sensory input, like EVERY social event!

Sorry, I’m having an angry day. I get those sometimes. This one is most likely because I missed my cousin’s wedding, Saturday. It was the family event of the decade. I couldn’t go because I didn’t have enough money or support to arrange a week of travel and accommodations around my sensitivities. I am trying to convince myself I didn’t really want to fly to Colorado in the dog-days of a record breaking Houston summer and spend time partying and river rafting with my entire extended family.

Anyway, this article sites evidence that sensory sensitivity is not the same thing as social anxiety. However, people with generalized social anxiety were more likely to have SPD than people with specific anxiety problems.

SPD Interacts with Environmental Factors

We adults who grew up with hyper-sensitive nervous systems tend to have a more intense negative reaction to parenting styles we felt were uncaring. This led researchers in one study to conclude that high sensitivity may react with environmental factors (like a less-than-kind parenting style) and result in… wait for it…anxiety and depression.

You mean growing up with a family who disparaged you for over-reacting to sounds, smells, emotional barrages and tactile miseries might have a negative effect on your self-image? Go figure. Punishment might be effective to dissuade a child from socially odd behaviors she might misguidedly or accidentally choose to engage in. But punishing a child for behaviors or reactions she has absolutely no control over is tantamount to torture and would make anyone anxious. That is what a lot of us sensory defensives grew up with. Everyone who is different gets some bullshit from the neighborhood and the playground, but when there’s no one at home to comfort you, to say you didn’t deserve it, you grow up believing you did deserve it. I think you can draw a pretty clear line from that early training to the belief that you have no control over your life. Seems logical to me that sort of upbringing would engender feelings of sadness, of not belonging and of worthlessness. Depressing, isn’t it?

Sensory Defensiveness and Romantic Relationships

This theory makes a case for hyper-sensitive people experiencing more anxiety around romantic relationships – something else they noted in the literature. They also discovered that people who needed to avoid sensation tended to avoid romantic relationships.

SPD and Teens

Sensory Processing Disorder impacts our behavior and our health as we leave childhood. As teenagers and young adults, it makes us more likely to act out and abuse alcohol and drugs. If we, as a society, were more aware of SPD and treated it like a health risk, we could quite likely reduce some of the dangers we worry about in teenagers: juvenile delinquency, driving accidents, substance abuse and risky sexual behavior. All of these situations are adversely affected by untreated SPD.

Sensory Defensiveness and Womens Health

Studies in this article showed sensory-sensitive women have higher rates of trauma, allergies, migraines, chronic and debilitating pain, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue and, of course, depression.

We know that the ups and downs in our SPD affect our ability to engage in every aspect of our lives: work, leisure, daily living, social events and parenting. Half of the women in one study chose to be homemakers because of their SPD, even though they all had advanced degrees.

Sensory Intervention

With the help of research into SPD, mental health practitioners in these studies have developed many different intervention approaches using sensory motor activities, sensory diet, and changes and enhancements to a patient’s sensory environment.
One of the intervention strategies was a three component home-based treatment protocol for adults with sensory defensiveness that included:

  • Teaching patients about their sensory defensiveness
  • Regular and daily sensory input
  • Engagement in physical activities, of the patient’s choice, that provided tactile, vestibular and proprioceptive input.

This program significantly reduced the anxiety and depression in these patients.

There are accounts of intervention programs based on the Wilbarger approach that made a positive impact on the lives of women with anorexia, self-injury behaviors, PTSD, borderline personality disorder, dissociative disorder, car sickness and hyperactivity.

When they looked over all the evidence in the literature regarding interventions for adults, the AOTA concluded that on our own we hypersensitive adults often develop coping strategies but if we have sensory processing problems they may still dramatically impact our abilities, behaviors, emotions and our mental health. Treating sensory defensiveness with occupational therapy can have positive results and is worth pursuing for adults with SPD.

Creating Awareness of SPD

Imagine what our lives could be like if professionals concerned and well-educated in SPD, were consulted and involved in areas of life concerning health and wellness, environmental design, mental health and crisis management of trauma and abuse.

I believe a future like this can exist and that we adults with SPD can help build it. Too much of our lives have been spent suffering in silence and confusion. It’s time we take control. Let’s educate ourselves and then pass on our information to everyone we can. Let’s practice talking about the disorder and what we do in our lives to make it better.

Topics for discussion

  • Has SPD had a negative effect on your adult life?
  • What kind of coping strategies did you develop on your own?
  • Have you been fortunate enough to get care from an occupational therapist that specializes in SPD?
  • If so, what kind of difference did it make in your life?

Discussions here on Sensorina.com and on the Sensorina Page on Facebook are viewed by our friends and the public. They are effective places for us to help tell the world about SPD.

14 Replies to “Understanding the Occupational Therapy Needs of Adults with Sensory Processing Disorder”

  1. Thank you for posting this. I was diagnosed with SPD when I was 7 and im almost 30 now. I related to this article a lot.

  2. I am having a hard time finding out how they diagnose SPD in adults. And what treatment is available to adults with SPD. My 6 yr old was recently diagnosed and based on what I am learning I am seeing red flags in regard to my spouse. Can anyone provide some direction?

  3. I have only recently become aware that SPD even existed and it was like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. My whole life I’ve been regarded as too sensitive to everything, I’ve suffered so much because my father continually degraded me about it as a child (and he still does, though I’m 26)especially about not eating certain foods because of the texture (which drives him mad). I haven’t been diagnosed but I really think I have SPD and I’d really like to know who I could go to for help (psychologist? Occupational Therapist?)

  4. How/When/Do SPD and BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) overlap? I have both and never know what exactly I am dealing with. All I know is everyone tells me I have got to learn to cope better! Well, I am coping the best I can – everything is so intense that just getting by is taking a major effort on my part!

  5. My 22yr. old son was diagnosed with sensory integration disorder when he was 5. He worked with a therapist for 4 years and then went into organized sports. After playing football one year in college, he began experiencing anxiety and panic attacks. He has given up all physical activity and withdrawn from the world. Doctors and meds have not made a difference. Reading this makes me think he needs to address the sensory first. What would be my next step to help him?

  6. I was just diagnosed at 50 years old, and whew, what a relief!

    One thing I have not seen or read yet in any of the articles is that people think someone with SPD is hostile when they are not, or just misinterpret your physical nervousness (in my case) as some form of guilt. As a child I was always blamed for things I never did, and to some degree this has followed me into adulthood. People just don’t understand. If we are not processing information correctly, then certainly it is possible we are sending out the wrong signals. SPD is a two way street!

  7. I am having to do all the research myself to inform my doctors/counselor about SPD. Where in the world do you find “the SPD circles I attend?” And do you or does anyone here know how to convince insurance that OT is a valid treatment for adults? I can’t get it covered.

  8. Could you please tell me if there any groups in the voorhees/cherry hill, new jersey area that could provide help for my adult son. I am somewhat desperate and would like a support system for myself and help for him as well as others he could relate to.

  9. I feel like I could have written this myself! It’s everything I’ve been saying about adult SPD and more, but with research to back it up! I think SO many more people have SPD, but are undiagnosed and just think they’re inadequate, or are misdiagnosed with major depressive disorder, agoraphobia, etc. I think people where medication and talk therapy doesn’t have a huge impact on their symptoms need to learn about SPD and Occupational Therapy!

  10. I wish this article was still attached. I just found out about this and now I know why I suffered my whole nightmare of a life. I’m 58 and am proud of my accomplishments despite this. I have absolutely NO support. Both of my children have it and I’ve identified severe traits in, at least, two of my grandkids. There is no help in my area.

  11. I’m an OT working with people with sensory processing disorders. Just found your article on internet. Your cartoon was really helpful in explaining changing arousal levels.
    Am currently involved with a group of OTs putting training packages together for parents, children and young people.
    Would like to put your link in our facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/SenseAbleFamilies/
    Hope that is OK

  12. I have 15 year old daughter, which I firmly believe she has SPD. She is seeing physiologist who thinks she has anxiety and OCD but I would like her to get tested. I leave in Maryland where should I take her to get tested?

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