Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder in Teenagers
In this post you will learn everything you need to know about sensory processing disorder in teenagers, including treatment approaches, resources, and more!
Whether we fully grasp that or not, so much of our day-to-day function is dictated by our senses. Smelling smoke, tasting how much salt or sugar is in our food, feeling our skin getting sore, or getting overheated during exercise are just a few examples where our senses make all the difference.
So if our brains have difficulties with some sensory input, it only makes sense that our everyday functioning will suffer from it. That’s what sensory processing disorder is all about, and it’s a double whammy for teenagers.
But how can we make it better for them? Thankfully, there’s a lot that we, as caregivers and professionals, can do. Let’s dive into everything you need to understand about sensory processing disorder in teenagers and the best ways to manage it.
What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory processing disorder, or SPD, is a dysregulation of how the brain reacts to sensory input. An individual with SPD could be hypersensitive to certain senses and/or hyposensitive to others.
For example, a child or a teenager may feel physical pain in their eyes because of fluorescent light but wouldn’t notice if they had an open, bleeding wound.
Someone with SPD could be perfectly comfortable in really cold weather without wearing a safe amount of clothes but would get nauseated and highly irritable on a mildly hot day.
It’s important to note that the dysregulated reaction to sensory input isn’t just psychological; kids with SPD exhibit a measurable difference in their neurological response to stimuli.
Is It a Symptom of Autism?
As of this moment, SPD isn’t recognized as a diagnosable condition in the DSM-5, or at least not on its lonesome. It is, however, considered a symptom for multiple diagnoses, including ADHD, ASD, and schizophrenia.
What Is Sensory Seeking?
Just like some sensory input triggers discomfort and anxiety, some input brings visceral comfort and joy. That’s why some kids and teens with SPD (and other disorders) will engage in sensory-seeking behavior that ranges from harmless fun activities to dangerous or “weird” behavior.
Some examples of sensory-seeking behavior are touching different objects, surfaces, or people, repetitive motion, restless legs, hitting things, yelling or singing loudly, and thrill-seeking activities.
Sensory seeking isn’t problematic in itself but becomes an issue when the behavior is unacceptable like breaking things, deemed odd by the teen’s peers like rocking or petting people’s hair, or harmful to the individual like skin picking.
There’s a lot that you can do as an occupational therapist or parent of an SPD teen. One of the greatest things about working with teens is that they get to be directly involved in their own treatment.
Working with a therapist may be really difficult for teens, but living in an environment where clothes feel like barbed wire and normal everyday sounds feel like nails on a board is harder.
Since this is a disorder of the nervous system, it’s crucial to establish a baseline of safety and comfort before attempting to develop better reactions. The following approaches can be done separately or in sequence, depending on how well-adjusted your teen is with their SPD.
SPD-Conscious Lifestyle Changes
The first and probably most important treatment of SPD is to construct an environment where your teen has sensory safety. The purpose of this approach is to eliminate sensory triggers and replace them with grounding ones. This is the most effective way to achieve comfort and trust.
It requires a full understanding of the kind of sensory input your teen struggles with and the kind that brings them comfort. This is also the one part that’ll win a particularly defensive personality over.
Want to listen to super loud music? Let me soundproof your room. Super picky eater? Let’s choose a collection of feel-good but also healthy snacks that are stocked at all times. That may also mean that they stop or replace activities that trigger them.
For example, a teen with tactile sensory issues may struggle with a sport like tennis because of the sweaty grip of the racket but feels right at home in the water. This means it’s time to drop tennis classes and explore the possibility of doing swimming lessons instead.
It also extends to accommodations at school and home, such as wearing noise-canceling headphones in class, allowing them to leave class early to avoid busy halls, getting them their own chair in the living room that has comfortable upholstery, covering fluorescent and harsh lights, etc.
If your teen has a sensory-safe environment at home and is able to minimize the negative sensory experience at school, then it’s time to think about planning positive experiences into their routine.
A sensory diet is a fancy way to say scheduled sensory de-stress time. A teen’s sensory diet probably won’t include a session of playtime with shaving foam paint, though it definitely could.
Some simple things you could plan for your teen include having dedicated walk times between classes (outside of recess,) allowing them to sit on the floor in class, or having alone time at the gym to stretch or move freely.
The final phase of managing SPD is talk therapy. I say final, not because it needs to be done last, but because it’s of a lower priority compared to establishing a sensory safe zone for your teen.
There’s a lot that therapy can do for individuals that have SPD, and their chances of success are even higher if they understand that what they choose to focus on during therapy is in their control.
If you feel like your teen is ready to have that conversation, sit down with them to set goals for their SPD treatment.
Do they want to focus on getting more comfortable with new sensations? Are they more interested in learning to communicate their unique needs effectively to those around them? Do they still need to experiment with different sensory experiences to know what feels safe?
Talk therapy can help an individual with SPD understand their own sensory needs better and work through triggers with tools such as mindfulness and nervous system regulation activities.
For a teenager with sensory processing disorder, life can feel hard. Of course, as with all teenagers, their ability to translate their hard into your own can be uncanny.
If you feel like things are going downhill with your kid, don’t despair. Teens are usually resistant to everything, including things that used to work well for them, so it’s only natural that your journey with a teen will have some hiccups.
In fact, this is such a recurring problem that it needs to be addressed in depth, which is why I made a Teen Sensory Processing Guide for parents, occupational therapists, teachers, and any professional working with SPD teenagers.
This ebook will help you understand SPD on a deeper level, come up with a plan for and with your teen to go about their day smoothly, and figure out their own sensory needs.