As always, I encourage everyone to experiment and find what works for them. That being said, these are the strategies I use to help with my sensory issues.
People with sensory issues, whether ASD or SPD, are wired with a very sensitive nervous system. Brain scans of neurotypical vs folks on the spectrum have revealed processing differences. In folks with ASD, portions of the brain related to different sensory processing (auditory, tactile, etc.) remain more active than brains of neurotypical folks. Basically, we can’t filter different sensory stimuli as well as neurotypicals. This means we quickly get overwhelmed in environments with multiple stimuli occurring at once. Depending on the sensitivity level, this could include the hum of a refrigerator and aggravating lights. Or it could mean we can’t tolerate co-workers chatting while trying to work.
My sensory issues and stress levels parallel. Anything I can do to reduce my stress and anxiety reduces my sensory difficulties. While they never go away, they also aren’t debilitating when I take appropriate action. With this in mind, I find it helpful to eat a whole foods based diet. Exercise really helps. I take a few curated supplements such as fish oil, vitamin d and magnesium.
My stress levels go up when I have to look at a bunch of random crap in my home or work environment. I can’t focus. Spending time cleaning and organizing stuff that isn’t highly useful or inspires joy is soul draining. My stress levels go up when I’m trying to maintain relationships that don’t make me happy or when I’m engaged in activities I don’t enjoy. Editing life to include only those activities and people who make me happy helps!
Be mindful of voluntary stimuli, such as checking Facebook. Everything that you see and the posts that spark reaction cost valuable processing power. Be careful with tv and video games as well. Some content may be relaxing and enjoyable while some might just bring you down. I even try to avoid depressing books. I find that the worse I am feeling the easier it is to zone out on media that makes things worse. It is sometimes difficult for folks on the spectrum to understand what they are feeling. It is really important to be mindful and avoid snowballing the effects of being overwhelmed.
Routine & Rest (sensory breaks):
I find that the morning is most productive for me. This is because my nervous system has rested all night. As the day goes on it is quite likely that our nervous systems need a rest! This can simply mean taking a break with earplugs in a dark room. Or it can involve taking an actual nap. I plan and prep food for my day in the morning. Basically, using the morning to focus on what’s most important to you can be really helpful.
Minimize Sensory Stimulation:
It may be necessary to consider different living / working arrangements. Some work situations are really going to be difficult, such as working retail in a store with music. People with sensory issues need lots of personal space and the ability to shut everything out at least for brief periods of time. Working in environments such as a library is absolutely ideal. Obviously this isn’t going to be feasible for everyone or even most people, but get creative and flexible. If you are in a difficult situation, it is even more important to try and minimize sensory input and make good choices in your general lifestyle.
Emergency Sensory Kits:
These are often used by folks on the spectrum. I can get by carrying an extra pair of earplugs and wearing sunglasses. I wear sunglasses most of the time when I am not at home. I know it may look strange to others when I continue wearing them inside stores, etc., but I don’t care. I can avoid looking others in the eyes (uncomfortable for those on the spectrum) and it helps alleviates aggravating lights. It is extremely important to do what feels right for you, there is no reason to put an additional burden on your nervous system and life if you can avoid doing so with no (or little) consequence. If you are always cold like I am, carry an extra layer at all times. Make sure to have healthy snacks and water on hand. I always carry snacks!!
It really wasn’t until my mid-20’s that I really started to understand that I was having sensory issues! This may sound crazy but I was really led down all sorts of different paths by therapists, etc., since I began truly having difficulties at age 11. It is true that many folks on the spectrum may have difficulty truly figuring out what is bothering them. I existed in a constantly overwhelmed and shut down space. I was not capable of determining what was wrong. Even now, I pay more attention and understand more of the issues I am experiencing.
Definitely focus on the most difficult issues first. Sacrifices may be necessary. I like cute clothes, but I have found that unless I’m wearing super soft cotton tees and yoga pants, I am really bothered, aggravated and distracted. Since I’m at home with my little one, that’s all I wear now. It’s no use expending valuable energy on something that doesn’t really matter. I also realized that I want to look cute and feminine to others, I have some insecurity there. I had to make a decision about what was most important, my ego, or my sanity!!!
Some folks find weighted blankets and dry brushing help. I have tried weighted blankets and they don’t work for me. However, I like the gentle pressure of a medium weight comforter year round and I sleep with a pillow over my head. Certain objects can also be helpful and calming. I love to rub tumbled rocks between my fingers. I also enjoy liquid bubble bottles. I have a glitter wand with the same effect that I love to mess with. Again, this is probably very odd to some people. Oh well!
Do What Feels Right:
I can’t stress this enough, you really have to let go of what other people may think. The only exception being: you do need to maintain a certain level of professionalism if you work. Be creative and flexible in those situations. Search for sensory friendly clothes. Invest in mix and match pieces of higher quality natural fabrics. Don’t try to be the most fashion forward unless you have no issues with clothing and genuinely love fashion. Use breaks wisely. Hint: DON’T browse Facebook!! At home and in your social life, respect yourself enough to do what feels right to you. Wear what you want, let people know what you need, surround yourself with folks who are okay with your quirks. Save your energy for what matters most to you.