Sensory Processing Disorder in Adults

By Andrea Doumar, OTR/L

Sensory is a term that is used frequently nowadays. Typically you hear about different sensory challenges in children or school-aged kids. Sensory Processing challenges can also follow you into adulthood. For adults, those sensory challenges may have just been labeled as a type of “quirk” that person had. However, real sensory challenges can have an impact on any daily activity. Soundsory is a unique music and movement therapy program that is helping adults overcome their SPD challenges.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

When you think of the senses, you think of the big 5:

● Vision

● Hearing

● Taste

● Smell

● Touch

Our proprioceptive system and vestibular system are also key senses that are often not talked about enough. A person may experience difficulties within their sensory system by having difficulties responding to different inputs. The brain is not able to communicate accurately with the body to produce the needed response and/or behavior.

This is when we see children or adults who may be over-responsive, under-responsive, or even a combination of both. Within those, you may see someone who is craving more input or avoiding, such as an adult avoiding a crowded mall. All those sounds, people, smells can be overwhelming to their own processing system.

Sensory Processing Disorder can affect/manifest itself differently in each of these senses. It may even impact a child differently compared to an adult. Examples of how it may appear in each of the senses include:


■ Sensitive to different lights

■ Misses eye contact

■ Difficulty with tasks, such as a puzzle


■ Can have difficulties paying attention

■ Difficulty focusing

■ Easily Distracted

■ Easily startled


■ The adult or child may be extremely picky and avoid specific textures

■ Licking and chewing on items


■ Smells can be super overwhelming to someone with SPD

■ Can be a distracting

■ Need to smell everything


■ Different textures or sensations may become extremely irritating, such as getting a haircut or getting nails filed.

■ Avoid different textures like sand, playdough, water beads etc.

Vestibular: change in body position and balance

■ Often see children or adults very clumsy and bumping into things

■ Can also present as rocking and pacing

Proprioception: the body’s ability to perceive its position in space.

■ Difficulty with the amount of force, such as during handwriting too much or too little pressure

■ Playing too rough with peers

■ Difficulty with isolation of arm and leg movements

Sensory Processing in Adults

With school-aged children, it may be easier to see those sensory processing difficulties, but in an adult, it may not be so readily known. As adults, you may have learned to cope with the different stimuli your whole life to daily challenges. Sensory processing challenges manifest themselves in different ways; however, it is not just simply a dislike of something. It becomes a sensory processing issue when the stimuli become unbearable or impact the specific activity within your daily life.


● Itchy Clothing from a tag that it becomes unbearable

● Loud music from a mall or concert

● The smell of a candle or perfume making you feel nauseous

● Rather be hungry than eat a food item of a certain texture

● Unable to go to the beach due to the texture of the sand

● Flickering lights while in the work office making it hard to focus

● Thrill seeking all the rush of energy.

● Sound of a ticking clock causing distractions

Sensory Processing at Work

To some people, the tag of a shirt or a bowl of oatmeal would not be a big thing, but if you have Sensory Processing Disorder, it could cause a strong disruption in your daily routine. If the sound of a clock or a flickering light is going off all day at work, it may be extremely difficult to get any work actually done at work due to its distracting nature. Further examples of the way sensory processing can manifest may include:

● Coworker blasting music in the cubicle next to you

● Fluorescent overhead light/flickering light above

● Noisey lunchroom

● Lunchroom filled with different odors from food

● Overly crowded in the elevator up to your work floor

● Have to wear a specific uniform that is uncomfortable or a bothering material

● Your boss likes the office to be warm

● Difficulty interacting with coworkers

Anxiety and Sensory Processing

Along with sensory processing being thrown around, another term you often hear is anxiety. Anxiety can stand by itself or it can be coupled up with Sensory Processing Disorder. A person trying to cope with all the sensory stimuli can get an immense feeling of overwhelmedness, then add anxiety to it. The anxiety could simply be triggered by the anxiousness of an experience you are about to have.

The anxiety could appear as:

● “What am I going to eat/will there be food that I like?”

● “Is this place going to be overcrowded?”

● “Am I going to get lost?”

● “Do my clothes feel right?

● “What if the music is too loud”

● “Will there be people to talk to?”

This simple list could cause a lot of additional anxiety before heading out to a specific place or event. This causes a simple everyday activity to become a highly stressful situation on the regular.

Coping as an Adult with SPD

One way to cope with SPD is to find an Occupational Therapist to assist you. Different strategies can be recommended to assist you with understanding what your body might be craving or may need additional of.

Some therapists may recommend listening programs as well. Soundsory is one type of listening program that can be used by both children and adults.

Establishing a routine

Find the routine that works for you. The fewer sudden changes in the routine, the less you will have to worry about. Having a clear yet simple routine can be beneficial.

Small tasks > Large Tasks

If you are a person who enjoys having a “To-do” list, take that list and do the activities in smaller sections. Instead of trying to accomplish that list all at once and becoming stressed about it, try to break it down. Do little chunks of it at once, then take a break to recuperate, then do some more.

Understanding your body and sensory needs

a. Once you have been able to identify your own sensory needs and what helps you, you can have greater success in your daily routines.

b. If you know a certain texture like velvet or polyester may be a trigger to making you anxious or uncomfortable, then avoid buying clothes of the material. Look at the labels before buying items.