Jenny is 53 years old; she is a university lecturer in paleoanthropology, and when she isn’t at work she enjoys walks with her dogs. Jenny is happily married, bilingual, and on the autism spectrum.
Jenny has cultivated a very deliberate lifestyle that accommodates her specific sensory profile. She avoids unnecessary noise and flickering lights and has supportive seating in her office and options for standing to work. Jenny has noticed that since turning 50 she is even more sensitive to sensation than in previous years, and she is beginning to feel the strain.
Jenny has an important department meeting to attend. She and several other members of the team are hoping to propose important program changes. It is a hopeful and exciting time at her university. As she walks to the meeting, the flickering lights, smells, and echoing sounds of the corridor push her nervous system too far. Her body starts to tell her that she needs to flee. She feels uncomfortable and unsafe. This is not a situation where “mind over matter will work,” but Jenny tries to push through.
Jenny is the last one to arrive at the meeting. Her normal seat is taken. She cannot sit with her teammates, and she is unable to form the words to ask people to move. She is frozen in the doorway, desperately trying to step over the threshold and into the room. She starts rocking slightly from side to side, and this helps her a tiny bit, but she can feel a full shutdown coming on.
The team notices Jenny standing, stuck, in the doorway. As she finally manages to back slowly into the corridor, her longtime colleague and friend joins her outside the room. Jenny is mute, unable to explain what is happening. She can barely process the comforting words of her friend. Her friend guides her back to her office. She has never seen Jenny like this and is worried that she is sick or that something bad has happened in Jenny’s personal life.
Sensory Needs Can Change
Each of us process sensation differently. How we register and respond to sensation varies tremendously from person to person. When differences in sensory integration are significant enough to make the world feel uncomfortable, it is time to take a problem-solving approach and adapt to the world. By creating environments and identifying activities that nourish our sensory health, we can build a sensory lifestyle. A sensory lifestyle helps us spend our energy on the things we care about, and it means our world is made to fit our needs, rather than the other way around. A sensory lifestyle helps us be successful and experience well-being.
Jenny has a sensory lifestyle that has worked for her for many years. However, sensory needs change throughout the lifespan: transitions from childhood to adolescence, adolescence to adulthood, into middle age, and so on are all times when sensory processing capacity can shift tremendously. If we are positioned to expect and anticipate this, then we can ensure support is available and avoid the crises that so often occur when bodies start to “behave” differently.
Building a sensory lifestyle involves inclusive spaces, environmental accommodations, and nourishing activities and routines. It requires dialogue with the body and a flexible response to changing sensory needs. It requires self-education and involvement from those in our closest relationships and immediate community.
If sensory integration and processing is so pivotal for vocational success and psychological well-being, why don’t more people talk about it? Why does it take some people until adulthood to hear about this important domain of human development?
Sensory Health Supports Vocational Success
Jenny reaches out to her counselor who works in a multidisciplinary team. They collaborate with an occupational therapist trained in sensory integration and establish a detailed profile of Jenny’s current sensory integrative function. As a team, alongside Jenny’s partner and colleagues, they are able to cultivate an updated lifestyle for Jenny.
Jenny is able to work from home some days using web-conferencing, but it is important to her that she can remain on-site at least part of the working week. Her department begins to hold meetings in a room with natural light that is accessible through an outdoor path rather than using the corridors of the main building. Jenny also starts to use text-to-speech accommodations for times when her body is feeling more serious sensory overwhelm. Removing the need to speak and accessing her ability to type allow Jenny to participate fully in staff meetings. Her team is grateful that they can continue to collaborate with such a bright and insightful colleague.
Sensory health supports communication success - and speaking is not the only way to communicate. Communication is a right and non-speaking methods do not need to be a last resort. Through a combination of approaches, Jenny has found a way to stay engaged with her team intellectually and socially.
Does Jenny’s story sound familiar to you? Changes in presentation of differences in sensory processing are common and can be addressed supportively. For a sensory integration and processing assessment, reach out to your local sensory focused occupational therapy practice, or contact us at STAR Institute and we'd be happy to guide you!
For more information on augmentative and alternative communication options: All About AAC
Adults experiencing sensory processing challenges can find support with STAR Institute's adult treatment program.
Sensory Health Transforms Lives
This year we have shared the stories of seven characters who are very dear to our hearts - each character represents a different aspect of how differences in sensory integration and processing impact health and wellness. The characters are from different stages of life, contexts, and family backgrounds but they all have one thing in common: discovering the power of sensory processing transformed their lives for the better. These stories are based on real life, real testimonies, real people.
Help us do more! We are raising funds for our education and advocacy work. So far in 2020, we have run free and pay-what-you-can parent workshops, trained school-based occupational therapists, educated educators, and more. With your support, we want to reach out to school districts, law enforcement agencies, more families and individuals, more clinicians, and educators. Your gift will be put to work immediately.