Thursday, April 7, 2016

When Things Feel Terrible: A Primer on Sensory Processing

Martin's ABA therapist taught us a very useful question: "Can you live with it?" When Martin is obviously having a hard time with something we can ask him this question. The question acknowledges that something feels wrong. It also inquires about whether or not Martin feels that the problem is insurmountable.

We use this question with Martin when he struggles with sensory processing, which is also sometimes called sensory integration disorder. There are sophisticated descriptions of sensory processing problems, but an easy way to think about it is to imagine moments when things you see, hear, smell, taste, and/or sense on your skin are beyond unbearable. For me, that would be seeing mauve slacks while hearing a car alarm and smelling a wet dog all the while wearing wool in summer. That situation would make me lose my mind. I could not easily live with it. Thankfully, I can't anticipate a moment when I'll have to.

For people with sensory processing issues, this unbearable feeling produced by sights and smells (etc.) happens a lot. It can be debilitating. It has been debilitating for Martin. Here's a partial list of the the things we either avoid (or must do) to address his sensory processing struggles:

  • No Chinese restaurants (smell)
  • No loud restaurants (which is almost all of them)
  • Wearing exercise "soft" clothing all the time, even on Easter (sensation on the skin)
  • No real haircut before the age of 6 (sensation on the neck and ears)
  • No dentist visits before age 6 (all the senses)
  • No hymn singing (which is not easy when you're born into a Mennonite family)
  • No singing "Happy birthday"
  • Sleeping in various tight-fitting spaces, such as under beds, in laundry baskets, ball pits, cardboard boxes, and once, with feet stuffed into a Tinker Toy can
  • Swimming all the time (it's one of the only totally free feelings)
  • So many foods to be avoided because of taste and smell
  • Terror at loud toilet flushing and hand dryers in public restrooms
  • Aversion to baby slobber (while at the same time adoring babies)
  • No seeds on bread
  • Sound-muffling headphones at elementary school music class 
  • The list goes on.....

Now that Martin is verbal, we can ask him whether or not he can live with situations that test the limits of his sensory processing. I can ask him if he can live with the noise level in a restaurant. I can ask him if he can live with it if I put a bowl of cooked broccoli on the table. If he can't, we can determine if a work-around is possible. We can see about sitting outdoors where the sound can escape, rather than inside where it rings off the walls. I can put the broccoli on the other end of the table and Martin can grab a fresh carrot for his veggie. Martin's ABA therapist also works with him to increase his sensory processing capacity. It's hard to get through this world if any and all singing bothers you, so the therapist sings to Martin. She starts with a 10-second song and rewards him if he gets through it. Then she increases to 20, then 30, and so on. He has learned to live with the fact that some people (including me) just love to sing.

But the question is whether or not those of us without sensory processing troubles can learn to live with people like Martin, who have a sort of visceral need to wear exercise clothing in order to feel comfortable. Can we live with people who just can't go to Chinese restaurants, even if we don't understand how the smell can really be that terrible? Can we live with people who feel compelled to make negative comments when a beautiful, precious baby is slobbering? Can we live with people who respond to lovely home-cooked meals with a distorted face and slightly rude comments about how it smells?

Martin has been asked to live with a lot of things that make him uncomfortable. He works hard at it. He has to practice it. The question is whether or not the rest of us are also willing to live with things that make us a little uncomfortable?


  1. I learned some new things here! I now understand why Martin gets upset when I sing a song to Alli at bedtime! Dear Martin, I'm sorry I didn't understand. Love Aunt Jeanine

    1. Next time you can ask him whether or not he can live with it!

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