Sensory Processing

I  frequently run into children in my psychology practice who have issues with how things feel, taste, or sound. These children do not have diagnoses of Autism Spectrum Disorder (although many of those people have significant sensory problems).  No, the children to whom I refer are just really irritated and bothered by things in their sensory worlds.  They have problems with the textures of foods, with seams in their socks, and with dirt on their hands. They crave tight clothes and heavy blankets, or else they don’t like wearing clothes at all.  Some can’t abide loud noises.  Some can’t bear to have anything like a tooth-brush in their mouths, or else they have an intense need for oral stimulation and need to chew on things.  I refer them to Occupational Therapists who do all sorts of mysterious and wonderful things with them to reduce their sensory stress  and make them less irritable.

I, too, have some sensory issues. I remember as child that I wouldn’t wear any article of clothing that had a tag in it. Mom had to cut them off. They were itchy and scratchy and I couldn’t stop thinking about them if they were still inside my clothes. I also remember wearing what are called “rumba pants” as a very little girl. They were  decorative panties with lace on the backside.  They itched like crazy and it was impossible to sit down without having them scratch my legs.

I prefer loose clothes to tight clothes.   I never liked it when my mom would wash my bedding, since I liked things soft against my skin, and the freshly laundered  sheets were scratchy.  I can’t stand to feel that there is anything under my fingernails. This partially accounts for my unbreakable bad habit of chewing my nails. My son tells me that whenever he touches cardboard with his fingertips, it is like hearing nails on a black board for him.

I don’t know why I am seeing so many children with this issue.  I think  other children had sensory issues when I was young, but that no one asked the right questions to find out.  Perhaps life wasn’t quite as complicated  then and it was easier to learn to cope.  Perhaps we are doing something environmentally  or in our child rearing practices that is causing more problems like this. I don’t know the answer. I just know I am glad there is help for all that sensory irritability now.

What sensory issues do you have? Do you know someone with sensory issues?

52 thoughts on “Sensory Processing”

  1. i saw the movie hidden thread last night with my left foot guy as the basket case you describe. great movie.. i am that guy.

    the movie has him super sensitive to sound. when i was little i couldnt stand to sit next to someone chewing ice, that graduated to people eating potato chips too … then anything crunchy. then on a bad day chewing with your mouth open. my family hates me.
    i am with your son on the cardboard thing. it makes my teeth itch. odd but true. same or worse with styrofoam. i cant touch it.
    tags inside clothing never were an issue and today they are. not all tags but some that have sharp corners or stick up. i dont notice them at first but end up scratching as the dya goes on and i file away a memory to avoid that shirt next time.
    i am messed up. i know it but i have no idea what to do about it. at least i dont wear rhumba pants

    Liked by 4 people

    1. The other two members of my family have your same issue with chewing. Makes a person self-conscious about eating anything with more substance than applesauce…

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        1. Chewing your food with your mouth open is just plain bad manners, and so is talking with your mouth full of food. Revolting.

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  2. As I’m sure you know, Renee, psychologists refer to people like you as Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs). I mention the label because it is intriguing to Google the term. I dated a HSP years ago. One of her two daughters was one, too. I got to observe this fascinating but frustrating phenomenon up close.

    A big problem for such people is that others think they are spoiled and irritatingly demanding. People who don’t understand this will think of it as a “princess and the pea” problem. Many people fail to perceive that HSP folks are physiologically different and they experience the world differently.

    I understood that, and yet it was confusing to date such a person. What was for me a glorious day in autumn was, to my friend, oppressive because she could not escape the stink of rotting vegetation. If she made an error by eating certain foods she would go into a funk and need to hide in a dark house for two or three days.

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  3. Sewn in labels on necklines bug me to no end. I have to cut them off or else I just scratch and scratch. As I have aged, items such as scented candles, perfumes, many scented products such as laundry soap, and incense have become nearly intolerable. Many people swear by lavender for many uses. It just gives me a major headache. Vanilla is still OK as are a few other mild scents.

    Today I leave the snow and cold behind for a week while visiting a friend and enjoying the sunny skies and warmth of Tucson. WooHoo!

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    1. You don’t have to be highly sensitive to find sewn-in labels annoying, especially when the label is that crisp satiny material that is sharp at the corners. Sometimes the manufacturers inexplicably use monofilament thread to sew in the labels, thread that comes loose at the ends and is most annoying.

      I also have gotten more sensitive to smells and am repelled by perfumes and artificial fragrances in soaps, candles, etc. Nothing could drive me away from a retail establishment faster than the smell of potpourri.

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      1. That monofilament thread sometimes used to sew in labels is really strange. I agree, you don’t need to be hypersensitive to want to remove something that’s poking you in the neck and hurts.

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  4. Great blog, Renee, and that picture in the header gives me the willies. I learned a lot from this blog. I had no idea that such sensory issues were that common. In my mind, most of these issues are all in your head, but I’m now wondering if there are actual sensory misfires. I’d love to learn more about what the OTs do to remedy the situation.

    Like tim, I don’t like to touch styrofoam. It’s not an aversion, I just don’t care for the way it feels and the way it squeaks. Another thing that I don’t like is an inflated balloon close to my head. It distorts sound (not to mention what it does to my hair). Perhaps this has to do with my impaired hearing, I don’t recall it being an issue when I was younger. On the other hand, perhaps I was never that close to inflated balloons long enough to notice?

    I’ve never understood nail biting. To me that is an emergency remedy to a broken nail; a very unsatisfactory fix that inevitably results in a shorter nail than I want, and one that’s still ragged.

    I too prefer loose clothes, they’re just more comfortable to me. Besides they help conceal a body that’s past its prime. A friend of mine always wear clothes that appear to be a size or two too small for her. I attributed that to her wearing clothes that she had outgrown, until I went shopping with her once. She actually buys new clothes that are too small. Hans’ theory on this is that she was once a size ten, and that she hasn’t adjusted the size number to reflect the changes in her body. Maybe he’s right, or maybe she likes her clothes tight?

    I’ve never thought of myself as having any such sensory issues, I’m now rethinking that. I’m easily startled by unexpected touch and sounds, especially if I’m asleep. When I was in the hospital after my fall, I’d often be awaken by a nurse gently touching my shoulder, and I’d just about jump out of my skin. They felt bad, and I felt worse. Residual long-term reaction, no doubt, to having been awoken, repeatedly, as a teen by a bucket of cold water tossed by my mother. I was an unbelievably heavy sleeper (still am), and would routinely oversleep, which infuriated my mother.

    Like K-two, I’m increasingly sensitive to smells. I’m extremely sensitive to smoke, especially from tobacco. I wonder if that sensitivity has been exacerbated by the fact that I’m no longer routinely exposed to it?

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    1. i just have to laugh at the movies form the 50’s and 60’s where people smoke in hospitals, church and everyones living room and dining room.

      the world has turned a corner. i saw a woman standing outside her car in -5 weather to some so the people she would be driving would not be upset when they came back

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  5. Great question, Renee.

    I hate those silky edges on blankets, the feel of that against my skin gives me the creeps. I don’t have those kind of blankets in my house; if I”m somewhere else, I fold down the blanket to be sure the edge doesn’t touch my skin. That extends to those horrible nylon winter coats that are made of that nasty slippery stuff. Makes me shudder.

    The sound of someone creasing paper also creeps me out. Just once is okay, but I know someone who would crease the same piece of paper over and over and that sound drove me nuts.

    Continuous loud noice – lots of people talking at the same time, people with really loud voices and no idea how they sound to others, “background” music that is loud during a party where lots of people are talking, a person talking a loud monologue that goes on and on, anywhere there is lots of different, continuous noises that compete for my attention. I honestly feel like I’m being battered or beaten in the head in situations like that.

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  6. I remember my Dad once telling me that having wood in his mouth was like fingernails on a blackboard to him. How often do you chew on wood? Think popsicle sticks and those little paddle spoons that come with cups of ice cream and tongue depressors.

    I have an aversion to smooth, lank fabrics, usually knit synthetics, that are often used in activewear. My hands tend to be rough, especially in the winter and the fabrics stick to them unpleasantly. I frequently reject the purchase of clothing items based on the too-smooth feel of the fabric.

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    1. I know exactly what you mean about the too-smooth feel, Bill. It’s usually annoying, but if my hands are especially dry, it’s horrible.

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  7. I’m sure the HSP syndrome exists on a continuum, as most human traits do, and that different people with the syndrome experience different symptoms.

    My HSP friend had a PhD in music, but you would never hear music in her home. She didn’t have a radio and her fancy computer had no speakers. If you knew her casually you might think she hated music.

    Just the opposite was true. My friend enjoyed music so passionately that she couldn’t multitask when music was present. She only could listen to music totally, with all her concentration. So music was never present in the background for her. She adored live music concerts where she could give music all her attention.

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  8. Rise and Shine Baboons,

    I am surprised at this topic today. I actually did a research study on this while working in a Chemical Dependency treatment center for teen-agers that was written up in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment out of Columbia University.

    When I was a school social worker, back when the earth was cooling, I was introduced to working with OT’s who treated Sensory Defensiveness. The kids who had this and worked with OT’s often had ADHD or Aspergers. When they worked with an OT, they did really well. When I worked in CD treatment the same kids, now teens, appeared with the same symptoms. They used chemicals to calm sensory input. We brought in an OT to treat this, and they had a higher rate of recovery.

    I even had a book contract to introduce the concept to the recovery community in a book, because so many addicts are extraordinarily sensory defensive. And then the organization re-organized itself, then contract was cancelled, and I left for greener pastures.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Interesting topic today. Thanks Renee.

    Sleeves bother me. 🙂

    I rememember elementary school photos and mom would dress me in those polyester knit shirts. Hated them. Don’t like sweaters to this day; the neck is too tight.

    I’m a little like Linus; our bed has a blanket with the satin edging. I find it soothing to run my fingers along that edge. If I have trouble falling asleep, I run that through my fingers a few times and I’m out.
    …I feel like I shouldn’t have told you all that…

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  10. Fascinating, baboons! I always seem to be slightly more aware than any housemates in most senses – I can smell more stuff, good and bad, I’m very aware of visual details, I hear more nuances, I enjoy that “feel” on the edge of the blankets IF it’s made of the right fabric (who knows what?), my taste bud are pickier. But I can’t think of any specifics like the rest of you weirdos.

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  11. As a fellow therapist, I have a pretty strong idea about why we attract certain clients and not others. This shapes us into specialties which might not have been intentionally sought. I’ve observed this phenomenon over and over. We tend towards clients whose wounding somehow reflects our own. Therapists who suffered child abuse gravitate toward, and get a reputation for, children who are or were being abused. Therapists who had a difficult adolescence wind up working with teens. Therapists who grew up in extreme religiosity wind up working with clients who were harmed by this and need to reconcile the gap between their parents beliefs and their own agnostic beliefs.

    I once knew one therapist who had only borderline personality disordered women. Clients with this disorder are usually avoided at all costs and referred on to therapists who seem to do well working with them. These are the clients who idolize their therapists to an extreme, then, when told something which conflicts with blaming everyone else for their problems, may sue their therapist. They also have an annoying tendency to call at 3AM threatening suicide. In retrospect, the therapist who loved working with this difficult diagnosis qualified for the diagnosis herself!

    My own evolution of being a therapist clearly resonates with my childhood wounding. I had an awful time with feeling unlikeable through my own adolescence. I wound up directing a teen counseling center for years. Then a funny thing happened: I matured into a young adult and began working with people who were trying to find their places after leaving home. Next, middle aged clients found their way to me as did those in troubled marriages. Ultimately, approaching retirement, mostly older people sought me out. It’s as though moving through the life cycles myself created requisite skills and empathy for working with fellow travelers.

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  12. I wonder about the incidence of these issues in other countries. I wonder if there would be fewer folks with HSP issues if our world moved more slowly and if there was less sensory overload. Personally, I blame video gaming and visual overstimulation from cartoons and other media.

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  13. I don’t have much trouble with smells or the feel of most fabrics (with the exception of those microfiber cleaning cloths), but I am sensitive to noise. When I get my hair cut, usually the stylist will have both a radio and a TV on. Sometimes the sound will be off on the TV, but not always. I don’t know how she can tolerate that. Repetitive sounds can drive me crazy, even if they’re not very loud. If I’m in a store and I hear somebody’s kid start doing that thing they sometimes do – “Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom.” – I just turn and run. Leaf blowers: not a fan. Car alarms: AAAAAAGGGHHH. Some people have the ability to tune out sound. I feel helpless in the face of annoying noises.

    Once when I was in a restaurant with my sister’s family, my younger niece got a rather anxious look on her face and asked if she could change seats with her father. She explained that in the first position, she had her back to the kitchen, and the sounds – pots and pans clanging and such – were jangling her nerves. When she moved across the table she could face the kitchen, and it was less anxiety-provoking for her. That sort of made sense to me.

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  14. I remember going through a phase when I was a kid when I chewed on pencils, and also on my hair. I had long hair then, sometimes in pigtails or braids, and I chewed on the ends. I think I also chewed on my fingernails. I seem to remember that I only did this while I was in school. The compulsion went away after a year or two, if my memory is correct. It was around third grade.

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  15. My HSP friend found her condition amusing and interesting. She was extremely bright and had almost no respect for doctors because they so often said things she knew to be true. So she ran her life by her own principles.

    She was forever running little experiments testing this syndrome. When she washed clothing, towels or bed clothing, she had to work harder than most people. Following the wash cycle she threw vinegar in the washing machine and did a followup washing. Then she ran the wash through two or three extra rinse cycles.

    I remember the day she experimented by eliminating one of the rinse cycles. Her daughter complained, “Gee, Mom, how come the sheets are all scratchy?”

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  16. I’m not sure if or where this fits into the discussion, but if I go to a friend or relative’s house who has the curtains, shades, etc. drawn during the daylight hours, I can’t stand it. If I know the person well enough I will ask if we can open the blinds, and then try and explain: I feel somewhat claustrophobic when I’m not able to see out the windows. I don’t have a problem being in a room with no windows, but if there is a window and it’s daytime, I must be able to see out.

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    1. The flip side of that coin, BiR, is this. My eyes are extremely light sensitive. Especially during the winter months I keep the blinds down because the light reflecting off the snow actually hurts my eyes. If you’re visiting and sitting on the loveseat if front of my front window, I can’t see you if the shades are pulled.

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  17. Our daughter has a host of noises she makes. Some are more bothersome to me. Kelly tunes them all out.
    Watching a movie or TV, daughter reacts to some much it makes me crazy. I’ve tried ignoring, I’ve asked nicely not to do it, I’ve threatened, I’ve say with her and hugged her tight.
    It’s just something she does.

    I find it interesting when I have tried to break her of something, the first week her response will be ‘Ok, I’ll try’. By the second week it becomes ‘But I like doing it!’.
    Which is a little fascinating how she’s processing things.

    I think cognitively, she’s about in her early-teenage years. I’m pretty sure it’s going to kill me.

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    1. I feel for you, Ben. I spent four years working with teachers and parents of autistic students and limited cognitive ability students on developing descriptions of appropriate social behaviors. The one thing we kept coming back to, which they considered the worst challenge was the repetitive behaviors, especially challenging with autistic students.
      So much patience it calls for from the parents. All I can say is that I understand.

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  18. I have been deciding all day if I was going to say anything. I was silent on the sexual assault issue, so why not this one. I do not know why I am not holding my tongue.
    First a funny story about the smooth edges on blankets. My daughter from an early age developed the knack of rubbing that material against her cheek while she sucked on two fingers. The two fingers and her cheek were often chapped. Later she added a soft mewing sound as she did it, sort of like saying “oy-oy-oy” over and over again. She did this a little past her beginning of kindergarten. One day when she was about three she was staring off into space lost in thought and doing her trick with the cloth. I asked her what she was doing, meaning where her thoughts were. She answered, “:I’m just sitting here oy-oying.”

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  19. Not to bring up the painful subject of sexual abuse/indiscretion/assault, but as a person who has had two close family members suffer various degrees of sexual assault I decided I would just go away and suffer from painful remarks made a few weeks back. I have no right or wish to review what happened, but let me tell how awful it is to have people, some in authority, tell you that they asked for it, were making too much of it, had faulty memory, etc. Enough said. I am explaining why I quite commenting.

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  20. Today’s topic is similar, but no where near so traumatic.
    On the topic of multiple and hyper sensitivities, I like, many fM sufferers, have it in spades, for all but taste. I am not going to bore you with details, except to say I live on the Wack Job side of tim’s line. Let me tell you that people who work with FM sufferers know it is real and unsolvable.
    A definition borrowed from Wikipedia: Allodynia (Ancient Greek άλλος állos “other” and οδύνη odúnē “pain”) refers to central pain sensitization (increased response of neurons) following normally non-painful, often repetitive, stimulation. Allodynia can lead to the triggering of a pain response from stimuli which do not normally provoke pain.
    In other words sensory input gets turned into pain. It piles up upon itself until you are so wired you go into fight or flight.
    I want to speak to the social issues of this. One of the issues with chronic pain is that everyone suffers from pain so they think they know about chronic pain. But those who have studied it, including with brain scanning, will tell you chronic pain is a whole nother universe. This issue is similar. Today’s posts show we all have some irritants. But HSD is similarly a whole nother universe.
    It isolates you socially because social settings are rife with irritants: perfumes, loud and confusing noises, odd lighting, people touching you, having to wear clothing that constricts/irritates, etc.. You have trouble communicating, responding appropriately. So people decide you are a whack job. If you tell people about it, people do as they do when you talk about pain, they tell about their irritants (Which is only fair) or answer in unhelpful ways, not unlike what victims of sexual abuse hear:
    It’s all in your head. (Which it is in fact, but not in the way they mean.)
    Or they tell you how it is your fault. You are just too sensitive, you eat the wrong foods, you don’t get enough sleep (Which is true because of the condition), you should stop watching tv and get off the computer, etc,
    Everyone has a diagnosis.
    Or they have a treatment. They tell you of the evils of western medicine and the joys of alternative medicines, such as acupuncture, especially acupuncture, which few of them have done. I once had a women tell me aromatherapy was the tickets. Think about that. Aromatherapy for someone sensitive to smells.
    In other words they dismiss you as a whack job. So you become a recluse, which then proves to them that you are a whack job. I can frankly say I have never ever had anyone commiserate with me about it, except my family. I do now live in isolation.
    I am not dismissing your irritations, hypersensivities. It was fun to see how common some things are. I only ask you to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes before you dismiss, attack, belittle, and drive away.
    Nuff said.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Clyde. Please use the blog as you see fit ,and as you can,and as it is helpful or comforting for you. No one in pain is a wack job, and you least of all.

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