Home Solutions to Cope with Sensory Processing Issues and Sensitivities
It’s hard to show sensitivity for things you can’t see. It can also be difficult enough “just” to open up about your struggles. It’s often even more difficult to ask for what you need, lest you feel like a burden or demanding to family and loved ones.
These are huge obstacles to the critical task of building community and support, particularly for people with disabilities.
Most material available on sensory processing issues focuses on children – likely since that is the common age of diagnosis - but these problems affect people of all ages and can be extremely disruptive. Because of misguided brain signaling, specific sensory triggers – of any sense - can become absolutely debilitating and unbearable.
In this piece, after a brief overview of the issues, we’ve compiled a list of tips to be aware of and help alleviate the symptoms at home. At the very least, we hope this piece facilitates safe, open conversations between you and your loved ones about how to best be supportive.
What are sensory processing issues?
Any disruption of the senses that causes hypersensitivity to that particular sense counts as a sensory processing issue, and results from dysfunctional processing of that particular sense or senses. There are many different ways that these issues may arise, and they usually accompany other health issues.
Sensory Processing Disorders
Though not recognized as their own diagnosis, sensory processing disorders tend to fall into a few different categories that consistently present alongside other disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder (including Asperger syndrome), ADHD, learning and language disabilities, and even Fragile X syndrome. An added layer here is that people with SPDs might not be comfortable communicating their triggers, and so you might see the effects – such as isolation, avoidance, aggression, depression, and anxiety – without readily seeing the causes. Some of the most common sensory processing disorders include:
- Sensory Modulation Disorder occurs when the brain’s responsiveness to sensory stimuli is altered. It can result in over-responsivity to stimuli, under-responsivity, or sensory seeking (where only the most intense stimuli are recognized by the brain, and therefore people need constant rich sensory input). The solutions we list here are particularly helpful for those with sensory modulation disorder.
- Sensory Discrimination Disorder occurs when people have trouble making sense of sensory input. They can receive stimuli – for example, they can experience the sensation of touch – but those with tactile SDD cannot use touch to tell the difference between different objects. There are eight different subtypes: tactile, vestibular, auditory, proprioceptive, visual, interoceptive, olfactory, and gustatory (the last two often occur together). The recommendations we make here in this piece might help people with SDD by simplifying the sensory landscape and facilitating other therapeutic methods to help hone their processing.
- Dyspraxia occurs as a result of developmental issues in coordination of motor movements, and is most commonly recognized as motor problems in people who are otherwise healthy (so, other diseases – such as cerebral palsy – are first ruled out).
One issue not discussed as much is that sensory sensitivities may result as part of other diseases and/or their treatments. The list of potential conditions that can cause sensory sensitivities is rather long and beyond the scope of this piece, however we wanted to draw attention to some of the more common ones. You may encounter people on a daily basis who are silently struggling with these sensory sensitivities. Again it is important to remember that these sensitivities can be completely disruptive and must not be taken lightly. Because there is often no clear, established pathologic association between the two, these sensitivities might be unfairly dismissed.
Some – by far not all - body-related causes of sensory sensitivity include:
- Migraines can often be triggered by light, sound, or even certain smells. Then, while suffering from migraines, many individuals find it helpful to isolate themselves – e.g. go into a quiet, dark room – to help alleviate the symptoms until the headache goes away. Because migraines can be such a moving target for treatment, it is extremely valuable – when a trigger is known – to act on it.
- Cancer chemotherapy can often render people extremely sensitivity to smell and/or taste. While medical workers are encouraged to use fragrance-free hygiene products to prevent causing discomfort to their patients, applying this to your home might help make it a more comfortable place.
- Kidney and liver disorders can cause multiple chemical sensitivity, including very strong reactions to particular odors.
- Specific medications can render people more sensitive to particular sensitive stimuli. For example, people on tetracycline or doxycycline are known to become more sensitive to light.
- Anxiety is the most common mental illness, affecting almost 1in 5 American adults per year. Sensory problems, particularly to touch or sound, commonly arise.
- Peripheral neuropathy can cause changes – and thus sensitivity – in sensation. The most common cause for peripheral neuropathy is diabetes, which affects almost 10% of the US adult population (with almost 20% of the population estimated to have prediabetes).
- Fibromyalgia is a very common pain disorder that can be caused by a wide variety of factors, but which can cause high sensitivity to sensory stimulation, especially to touch.
- Pregnancy while certainly not a disease does affect how your body functions, including from a sensory capacity. Pregnant women may become extremely sensitive to particular tastes and sounds, getting physically ill if exposed to them.
What can be done at home?
The home should be the ultimate source of comfort and nurturing. If you or a loved one are dealing with any of these sensory sensitivities, aside from discussing therapeutic possibilities with your doctor, you definitely want to ease the burden at home and create an environment that is restful.
Some of these fixes carry over very well into the workplace, and so you may wish to find ways to either incorporate these into your workplace yourself, or speak with your company to find ways to make these accommodations readily available. (It’s a good idea to have some form of medical documentation if you choose to pursue the latter.)
- Filter your air well: Remove particulates, scents, and allergens to help ease the burden on your body and potentially reduce sensitivity over time. For maximum effect, make sure you consistently replace your air filters per the maintenance recommendations.
- Maximize air flow: Use HVAC systems, fans, and open windows to keep air moving and prevent the risk of lingering scents
- Consider keeping rooms on the side of cool: Heat maximizes molecular dispersions and allows scents to spread faster.
- Monitor the humidity in your rooms: and the effect it has on sensitivity. Dry air and moist air carries scents differently because of the molecular interactions between the water and fragrance. Consider using an inexpensive device to monitor temperature and humidity in rooms, and then use open windows, humidifiers, or dehumidifiers as needed to find balance.
- Install well-fitted doors to rooms prone to smells: Kitchens and bathrooms tend to be rich in both scents and odors. A sealed door might be overkill, but making sure there are partitions that are well-fitted to their frames can help keep scents contained and manage symptoms.
- Try using natural scent absorbers: like baking soda or activated charcoal.
- Steer clear of artificial fragrances: Check your cleaning reagents and hygiene products in particular, and always opt for “fragrance-free.” You may want to try using high-quality essential oils instead, although these are still triggers for some people.
- Try using vinegar, baking soda, and other milder solutions to clean: Confirm that these aren’t triggers as everyone is different, but many people who cannot tolerate harsher chemical formulations and materials like bleach are able to tolerate these.
Closely linked to olfaction, there are some specific things you can do to aid with gustatory sensitivity.
- Discuss and validate triggers: If someone notes a sensitivity to a particular food or flavor, make sure you recognize this – don’t just dismiss it as ‘being picky’ or something. Avoid using that flavor profile.
- Log foods consumed and responses: This can help identify future triggers. This is particularly helpful as triggers may change over time, and also might affect people to varying extents. This is also a great way to work cooperatively to tackle this issue and organically discuss triggers while building and showing support.
- Dine in well-ventilated areas: Because of the close association between taste and smell, these two can function synergistically. Keeping the air flow moving and the level of lingering odors and scents low can help alleviate some hypersensitivity.
- Consider your meal ware: As anyone who’s drank wine knows, barware is designed to help complement and highlight the scents of different beverages; the dishes you eat out of can do the same. Try to use more open dishes to direct fewer of the scents directly at the person with sensitivity.
- Let your food cool ever so slightly before serving: Again, heat facilitates the motion of molecules and will disperse scents further. We certainly don’t recommend completely cooling food, but just a few minutes in a separate room away from the person with sensitivity can help reduce the potency.
- Use sealed containers to store food: This will prevent tastes and odors from migrating from one dish to another.
- Use salt and lemons with discretion, and consider the use of complimentary flavors with discretion: Known tools to help highlight flavors, such as salt and lemon, or use of flavors that sharpen each other (e.g. tomato and basil) can make tastes pronounced past a person’s threshold of tolerance.
- Use warm lighting: Local hardware stores have very helpful displays that showcase the differences between warm, natural, and cool lighting.
- Remove dimmers from your house: These constantly flicker at levels below the threshold that we can consciously detect, but that flickering can still have the effect of triggering sensitive people.
- Remove fluorescent lights or other potentially harsh sources of light: Seeing a bright light out of the corner of your eye can be enough to trigger a migraine.
- Use task lights pointed in front of you: but never towards you.
- Wear anti-glare lenses: to reduce your exposure to harsh light.
- Use dark colors or simple palettes to decorate: This simplifies the triggers to which a person is exposed by simplifying their visual landscape.
- Use thick curtains: to control lighting in the room. Many people find blackout curtains to be the most helpful, particularly as they can then build their own “cave” where they can cope if they have a particularly strong photophobic reaction.
- Avoid mirrors: These can sharply reflect light, and because that can often vary throughout the day, it might be somewhat unpredictable: you may walk into a room that usually is very eye-friendly, only to happen to come at the exact moment the sun shines directly into the mirror and hits you in the eye.
- Ask before you turn on lights: The sudden onset of light can trigger a person with light sensitivity, and so you want to make sure you check in before you turn them on.
- Buy special glasses: to relieve photophobia. TheraSpecs is one brand that is generally well-reviewed and comes in indoor and outdoor options, for both prescription and non-prescription eyewear.
- Be sensitive to the type of sound sensitivity: at hand, and modify your solutions accordingly. Some of these conditions may overlap – such as tinnitus and hyperacusis – and so you want to make sure you tailor solutions to the individual.
Tinnitus: is a constant ringing type of sound that is continuously heard by individuals suffering from it. Silent rooms might actually make it worse.
- Use a white noise machine: These usually offer several different options for sounds to play, volume, timers, and other parameters that you can adjust to fit your or your loved one’s needs. Depending on the frequencies that affect you or your loved one, this device can be helpful.
- Use pillows to elevate your head while you sleep: This tends to reduce congestion and helps make tinnitus less pronounced.
- Avoid stimulants: like coffee, alcohol, and nicotine, which can all exacerbate the stimulants.
- When decorating, prioritize creating a soothing environment: Stress is known to make tinnitus worse.
- Hyperacusis: involves sensitivity to common environmental sound, particularly at higher frequencies.
Hypersensitive hearing: usually involves particular frequencies and is commonly seen in people on the autism spectrum.
- Choose quieter products: Hair dryers and yard equipment are some of the more common devices that can trigger individuals suffering from hyperacusis, but you can read the specifications and compare while you shop for the quietest option.
- Make sure your windows and doors seal: Prevent sound pollution by making sure all entryways are well isolated.
- Use textiles as buffers: Carpets or rugs can help make footsteps more tolerable. Coasters, table cloths, and towels can ease the sound of surface contact.
- Fill your space: As already noted, textiles and furniture in the home help prevent echoes and dampen sounds. If you suffer from hyperacusis, it might be a good idea to live in a smaller space that has more material in it to help reduce loudness.
- Live on the top floor, preferably corner units: You want to make sure you have access to spaces free of interfering sounds. If you have to live in an apartment unit, make sure you live on the top floor (so you avoid footsteps above) and a corner unit. You might still hear your neighbors, but you’re more likely to be able to find a space in your home that is quiet.
- Perform loud tasks when your affected loved one isn’t home: Vacuuming is the classic example of this. Alternatively, if you live by yourself, consider hiring someone to conduct loud tasks – e.g. cleaning your home – and time it so that you are not home when they do this.
- Wear ear plugs only when absolutely necessary: There are special ear plugs with maximum noise cancellation that might be the ideal for you. It’s not good to always wear ear plugs, both for risk of ear infection as well as rendering the ears hypersensitive, but having ear plugs on hand for ‘surprise’ loud environments might make all the difference in keeping you functional.
- Consider the texture of all skin-on-skin contact: Discuss towels, sheets, and even furniture covers to make sure everyone is on board with how they feel.
- Consider weighted blankets or layering multiple blankets: Deep pressure can help soothe the anxiety that some people with tactile sensitivity might have.
- Layer clothing across the seasons: This keeps the basic clothing in contact with you or your loved one’s skin constant, so you’re only adjusting to additional weight – not new sensations, which can be overwhelming.
- Buy clothing and textiles without seams and remove all labels: These can exacerbate things for anyone with tactile sensitivity
- Monitor air flow: Direct air currents – such as being in front of a vent – can trigger symptoms. Position furniture so that it is not directly in front of any sources of air flow. When opening windows, be mindful of the flow of air that results, and alert loved ones if need be.
- Discuss food texture: People with tactile sensitivity might be very sensitive to the textures of foods, and so the way you cook and present food might make all the difference.
- Make sure dangers are flagged: People with touch issues might be subject to hyposensitivity or altered processing, and so they might not register pain as a danger sign. Make sure you or your loved ones knows how to tell negative physiological effects that result from injury.
- Always let someone know before you touch them: You might think hugs between loved ones are a no-brainer, but your surprise contact could completely set someone else off and/or cause them pain.
Ideally, you could discuss with them the ways in which they prefer to receive affection, and make sure you align accordingly.
If you don’t suffer from any of these sensitivities, it can be hard to understand what the person is enduring as a result of exposure. It is critical that you remain sensitive and open to discussing and implementing solutions to help accommodate.
Note: The information contained here is intended as general suggestions, but this piece is not meant to substitute for a consultation with a qualified health professional.