Do you keep stumbling, dropping objects, and people refer to you as the “clumsy” one? Maybe you know someone who doesn’t like to stand out, prefers to stay aloof and avoid crowds? You most certainly have met people constantly on the move, who cannot sit still and love extreme sensations. While these descriptions appear to be a simple juxtaposition of the different character types, they may actually represent the characteristics of people with sensory integration disorders.
We talk about sensory integration disorders when the nervous system incorrectly perceives and organizes stimuli coming from the environment and reacts incorrectly, i.e. emotionally and/or physically. Although this type of disorder is usually associated with childhood, it is important to know that it can continue from an early age, through adulthood, to late old age. The disorder may evolve and take other forms with age.
Age doesn’t matter
Many adults struggle with sensory integration disorders but only a few are aware of it. Moreover, with age, the efficiency of our nervous system and sensory processing processes decreases, so it can seem that “in old age” many of us will show dysfunction in this area.
“The results of scientific research suggest that with age decrease the volume of the brain and the thickness of the cerebral cortex, and deficiencies in the myelination of nerve fibres appear. This results in a decrease in the efficiency of nerve transmission, and thus somatosensory sensitivity.”
(“Sensory processing disorders and the quality of life of people over 50”, quarterly Integracja Sensyczna No. 4, December 2016).
Adults will therefore show the same sensory disorders as children, i.e. in the fields of sensory modulation, motor disorders and sensory differentiation.
Sensory disorders in adults – what are they?
By far the most common sensory disorder in adults is incorrect modulation, i.e. inadequate responses of the nervous system to a given stimulus. This reaction may be too strong, too weak, or none. The greatest difficulties in everyday functioning are caused by sensory hypersensitivity, i.e. tactile, auditory, visual, olfactory.
“Adults who are overactive to environmental stimuli seem to experience everyday life in a significantly different way than other adults. They describe their everyday experiences as irritating, overwhelming, disorganizing, distracting. They spend an excessive amount of time dealing with their own responses to environmental stimuli, and this situation leads to a feeling of exhaustion and often isolation” (Kinnealey, Oliver, Wilbarger, 1995, Oliver 1990).
On the other hand, these types of motor disorders exhibit problems with coordination, balancing or maintaining the correct body posture while sitting or standing. Sensory differentiation disorders mean difficulties in noticing the differences between stimuli of modality. For example, when we have difficulties in finding keys in a purse (tactile) or when we don’t notice an object in our field of vision (visual).
Symptoms of sensory integration disorders in adults
Sensory disorders greatly affect daily functioning and the ability to regulate and control emotions. That is why they will be characterized by their common reactions and behaviours, such as:
– avoiding certain types of clothes and materials,
– aversion to crowded or empty places,
– anger when stuck in a traffic jam or queue,
– reluctance to walk on uneven surfaces,
– fear of plane flights,
– travel sickness,
– avoiding elevators,
– excessive distraction when working with background sounds,