If you fill out the Infant/Toddler Sensory Profile for your child and see yourself on the page too, don’t be too surprised. Actually, you might feel relieved, and even a bit excited. Because now you know that you aren’t “crazy” or “weird” or even “difficult”. If you have some sensory processing issues of your own, you can learn how to address them and improve your situation while you are helping your child learn to build her own sensory processing skills.
About one in four of the families I work with will admit that at least one parent has or had difficulties with sensory processing at one time. They rarely offer this information at the evaluation. Only with the reframing that occurs as I explain the process of therapy for sensory processing disorder for their child do I hear about how they or their partner only eats certain textures of food or cannot tolerate wearing clothes with long sleeves.
Now, that revelation is just the beginning of a conversation about themselves, because one or two issues with sensory experiences doesn’t indicate a sensory processing problem. Eventually I will hear about all the small and sundry things that this person avoids or alters in order to manage life as a functioning adult. Then it becomes clear to both of us: the story they told themselves about their preferences or personality quirks is likely to be based in sensory processing struggles, not psychology.
Older children and adults who have never had treatment are told (or tell themselves) that they are difficult, rigid, controlling, and too sensitive. This sounds very demeaning, but in fact it is often not intended to be hurtful. Behavior is often seen as only occurring for cognitive or emotional reasons. You have a feeling, and the reason is how you are thinking or feeling. But behavior is now understood to have many drivers, and it isn’t always cognitive or emotional.
The truth is that sensory processing creates the impetus for many of our behaviors in childhood and beyond. Not seeing the effect of the body on behavior is a huge impediment to addressing issues effectively. Yes, people who are overwhelmed with sensory input can and do try to control their environment and the people in it. It looks like they are rigid and difficult. But it is not the same as being manipulative and aggressive due to interpersonal or emotional events.
Avoiding touch or movement can also appear to be relational when it is a sensory-based issue. The relational problems begin when the person or other people interpret the behavior as indicating something else, such as shyness or social aversion. How you define yourself and how others define you is like choosing which road to travel. It means that you may not see all the reasons for behavior and all the possibilities for change.
People who have experienced trauma in childhood OR adulthood appear to be more likely to exhibit sensory processing issues. There are some researchers that are very interested in sensory processing and trauma, such as Ulrich Lanius, but the treatment tends to be psychodynamic or EMDR, not the types of treatments that OTs use. That is a shame, because we have a lot of helpful, effective, and affordable treatment strategies that work WITH psychotherapy, not against it.
Adults rarely receive effective treatment for long-standing sensory processing issues. Sometimes they have come up with their own solutions, such as doing yoga to receive deep pressure input. They may tell their friends that they can’t digest certain foods, when in fact just seeing some foods makes them nauseous. I am more than happy to work with parents and help them creatively explore solutions for themselves when it is indicated. I have even treated adults formally as an OT from time to time. When parents see themselves more clearly as they support their child, both parties can address sensory processing issues more effectively.