How Sensory Processing Differences Can Affect Adults Socially
Some people have aspects of their senses that are more or less sensitive than average. They may also have a mix of extra-sensitive and less-sensitive senses - they don't all have to lean one way.
Examples of extra-sensitive senses
- Sight: Finding fluorescent lights painfully bright
- Hearing: Being unable to follow a conversation in a pub, because the voices at the next table sound too loud and distracting
- Touch: Flinching away from casual social touch, because it feels too intense; wearing certain fabrics is annoyingly uncomfortable
- Smell: Finding the regular background smell of a friend's apartment overpowering
- Taste: Being put off by the taste of many foods
Examples of less-sensitive senses
- Touch: A constant need to touch and fiddle with objects to feel connected to the world
- Taste: Being drawn to spicy or strong-tasting foods. Thinking everything else is too bland
- Balance, coordination, sense of where one's limbs are: Being clumsy, often bumping into things accidentally
Sensory processing differences are most often found in people on the autism spectrum. They're associated with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) as well. It's also possible for someone's senses be more or less-sensitive in the absence of any other condition.
It's very uncomfortable and distracting to have one of your senses be overstimulated. Anyone who's stared directly into a bright light or stood next to a loud speaker knows this. People with sensory sensitivities feel overstimulated by things most people don't think twice about. Everyday situations, like going to the mall, can feel very unpleasant and put them in a preoccupied or agitated state of mind.
Some people's sensory differences are obvious from a young age. Their parents caught on quickly that they reacted strongly to certain sounds or physical sensations. If someone's sensory issues are at an intensity where it interferes with their life, they may label themselves as having Sensory Processing Disorder. That's not an officially recognized diagnosis, but a term some people find useful in describing what they deal with.
Other people have more subtle sensory differences, and may not know they perceive the world differently. They may just assume there's something wrong for them for, say, not enjoying busy restaurants. They don't realize that not everyone experiences them as being so loud and overwhelming.
Whether someone knows about their sensory processing differences or not, they can have a negative effect on their social life. Here are some of the problems they can cause:
Having a harder time attending certain social events
Sensory sensitivities may make specific locations uncomfortable to be in:
- Loud, crowded pubs, restaurants, and parties
- Nightclubs or concerts with lots of flashing lights
- Movie theaters, with their loud volume, giant screen, and people crinkling wrappers all around
- Being outdoors in intense sun
- A college friend's smelly dorm room
- Restaurants that serve a type of cuisine you find unpalatable
- A martial arts class where everyone has to wear a heavy, scratchy gi
Someone may find these places so unpleasant that they avoid them entirely, and miss chances to socialize. Or they can be in them, but are so uncomfortable and distracted they don't have a good time. Like they try to have fun and focus on their friend's conversation, but can only half-follow it.
Having a harder time in longer-term settings
An intolerance to certain locations can limit someone in the long run too. Like they may not be able to work at certain jobs, or live with a bunch of friends in a noisy, smelly shared apartment.
Having a harder time with specific, quicker social situations
For example, someone may not like taking group photos because the camera flash bothers them. They're put in a no-win bind where they either go along with it and experience some physical discomfort, or get flak from everyone for not wanting to take part. Another example is the group wanting to do a round of foul-tasting shots.
Not being at your social best when your senses are overwhelmed
As I've said, it's irritating and draining to have your senses overstimulated. You can't bring your social A Game to a conversation if a chunk of your mental energy is taken up by trying to cope with the annoying loud noises or off-putting bright lights all around you. You can't think as quickly. Your attention is divided. You're in a touchy or anxious mood. You don't physically feel good. You're not able to show people the real you.
Being misunderstood and getting unflattering labels
Your average person isn't aware of sensory processing issues, and may look unfavorably on some of the behaviors they lead to. For example:
- "Boring", "too quiet", "spacey", or "no fun" - For being tense and preoccupied in a setting they find unpleasantly over-stimulating
- "Unfriendly", "boring", "no fun", or "anti-social" - For not wanting to do certain activities in the first place or for leaving early
- "Whiny", "wimp", or "uptight"- For complaining about how uncomfortable they feel in certain situations
- "Temperamental" or "snappy" - For sometimes losing their cool in over-stimulating settings that have pushed them to their limit
- "Picky", "immature", or "childish" - For not liking the taste or texture of many foods
- "Boring", "no fun", or "buzzkill" - For not drinking alcohol because they can't stand the taste of it
- "Weird" or "anti-social" - For being sensitive to being lightly touched, and wincing or flinching if someone pats them on the back
- "High-maintenance" - For doing things to work around their sensitivities, e.g., requesting a less-spicy version of a dish at a restaurant, or always asking their co-workers to turn their music down or not wear perfume
- "Rude", "weird", or "pretentious" - For doing other things to accommodate their sensitivities, like wearing a hat or sunglasses indoors to keep light out of their eyes, or wearing earplugs or headphones in a place where they're not typically used
- "Rough" or "inappropriate" - For having a less-sensitive sense of touch, and hugging or touching people too forcefully
- "Slob" or "oblivious" - For having a less-sensitive sense of touch and not realizing when they have food on their face, or that their hair has fallen out of place
- "Dorky", "lame", or "unfashionable" - For wearing clothes, shoes, or makeup they feel comfortable in, but aren't the trendiest
- "Clumsy" or "dorky" - For not being coordinated or good at sports
- "Wuss" or "wimp" - For easily being startled by sudden noises
That's quite the list, huh? That's a lot of low-grade disapproval due to in-born differences someone has no control over.
Lowered confidence and self-doubt
All the experiences I've covered can damage your self-esteem and make you doubt yourself. That's especially true if you don't know you have sensory sensitivities in the first place. Who wouldn't feel worse about themselves if they were constantly told they're picky, or a whiner, or no fun? How could you not get down on your social abilities if every time you went to a bar it put you in a bad mood and you didn't say much all night? How could you not wonder what's wrong with you if you dislike nightclubs, but you're constantly getting the message they're the height of fun and everyone else seems to love them?
Longer-term anxiety and depression
Sensory overload can make you feel anxious in the moment. Over a longer period its side effects can help an anxious or depressed mood settle in. Again, who wouldn't feel morose in general, or be more nervous around people, if their sensory issues made a lot of social situations go poorly? It can also wear someone down to go through life finding many mundane tasks or settings aversive to be in.
Ways to work around sensory processing differences
If your senses are wired differently, there's unfortunately no way to change that. However, there are things you can do to make life easier.
If you didn't already know you had sensory sensitivities, just getting an explanation for your struggles may help
It can be a huge relief to learn you're not weak, strange, or broken for having a low tolerance for certain stimuli and situations. You're not mysteriously flawed for hating concerts. They just don't agree with how your senses take in the world.
Try to get more comfortable explaining your sensory differences to people
For example, telling a friend it's nothing personal, but you'd rather not go to a particular restaurant because your sense of smell is wired in such a way that the scents of the cooking food are overwhelming to you. Or explaining you'll meet everyone at a bar, but only stay an hour, as that's all your senses can handle. It's not a guarantee they'll understand or be sympathetic, but that's often better than saying nothing and everyone thinking you're being annoyingly picky or eager to ditch them.
Learn more about what sets off your sensitivities, and do what you can to avoid becoming overstimulated
For example, if certain types of lights bother you, find the point where they cross over into being intolerable. Then figure out how to work around them as best you can. If you sit in a certain spot at a restaurant, can you avoid the worst of the light? Could you wear a hat indoors to keep most of it out of your eyes, and then explain what you're doing so you can keep misunderstandings to a minimum?
Learn general anxiety coping techniques
Having your senses overwhelmed puts you in a state of distress. You can partially cope with that by using techniques like calming breathing exercises, relaxing your tensed up muscles, or by being able to accept and tolerate your anxiety overall. This section of the site has a bunch of articles on managing anxiety.
An occupational therapist can help people with sensory issues function more effectively. They can help them gradually become more tolerant of stimuli that bother them, learn how their senses work, and figure out ways to accommodate their different style of perceiving the world.
If you have ADHD medication might help
People who have sensory sensitivities tied to their ADHD have reported that once they started taking medication they felt less overwhelmed by the things that used to bother them. Of course, I can't say whether any particular person will be helped by meds. That's something to discuss with a doctor.