Help for Adult SPD

What To Do If You Are an Adult with SPD

There is so much written on childhood SPD. We have plans, and strategies and treatment options and programs. We have theories and studies, and discussions about the plasticity of the child's brain. But where is the common sense help for SPD adults who wish to live a life in peace and comfort?

An adult can decide to pursue Sensory Integrative Occupational Therapy, although they may be told change is difficult. Compensatory behaviors are by now ingrained, and many adults are resistant to changing habits learned out of desperation and necessity. Some say the brain is not so "plastic" and change is more difficult, the older we get. Yet, I know therapists who treat adults up to 70 years old, with some success.

"I know therapists who treat adults up to 70 years old, with some success."

The ideal option for treatment is consulting with and beginning therapy under the trained supervision of an OT who specializes in SPD. This specialist can evaluate all the sensory systems, discovering the severity of dysfunction, and begin therapeutic intervention to help improve functioning. The patient will also learn activities to reinforce the effectiveness of therapy. These activities can be used at home, on the job, out in public or in any environment to relieve stress, provide comfort, increase focus, attentiveness, and awareness of the level of alertness.

But there are some problems with this ideal setting, where every adult is getting the therapy they need. Because of the insidious nature of SPD, the symptoms, feelings and behaviors that accompany SPD seem to work quite against the sufferer from being able to obtain services.

Employment issues, relationship troubles, emotional hardships, financial distress, and responsibilities of family and children can render the possibility of professional therapy to almost impossible.

Then what? What can an adult do? An adult who has become aware that all these hardships, all this pain, all the losses and humiliations they have endured may in fact be through no fault of their own. What can adults do to help themselves? Now that they have realized this is actually a disorder, now called SPD, discovered nearly 30 years ago but only in this last decade is finally coming to light and acceptance.

Get Started

Let's share some thoughts of activities and environmental modifications that actually may bring these beloved friends, sisters, brothers, cousins, mothers, fathers and relatives of people we love some measure of comfort, and relief.

To the SPD adult who does not, for whatever reason, have access to Sensory Integrative Occupational Therapy, I offer some thoughts to you.

"This may be enlightening to you, as you discover more issues than you ever realized you had which could be SPD related."

Learn the Symptoms

First, copy and complete the Sensory Checklist for Adolescents and Adults and fill it out honestly, so you can see for yourself, how severe you may be in each sensory area. This may be enlightening to you, as you discover more issues than you ever realized you had which could be SPD related.

Next, it would help you tremendously to purchase "The ALERT Program – How Does Your Engine Run?" to discover and recognize what activities you already do in your life, to increase or decrease your own level of alertness throughout the day, that you may not have been aware of.

If you need a very simply worded explanation of SPD, so you can get a handle on what it is, read "Just What is Sensory Integration?"

Again, I strongly suggest you consider a complete evaluation with a neurologist, or other doctor who understands SPD and the comorbidity of SPD with other diagnoses. ADHD, Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia and so many other disorders may accompany SPD, and needs to be addressed, either therapeutically, or sometimes with medication. Don't deny yourself medication that you truly feel you need.

Starting a Sensory Diet

Each of the following are suggestions only. You are the expert on yourself, and only you will know what is soothing and comforting and what activities are distressing, or overwhelming.

Take a bath!! You can read many articles on the benefits of Epsom Salts baths. Not only is Epsom Salt a detoxifying agent, but it will calm you, and increase magnesium levels in your body.

Use a scrubbie. One of the most important therapeutic interventions we use with children is an all over brushing with a surgical brush (according to Wilbarger) or a variety of brushes (according to Burpee). This stimulates the entire central nervous system, by a quick brush over as much skin of the body as possible, within a couple minutes time. If there is any history of seizures, do not brush the abdomen. Do not attempt this brushing protocol unless a trained professional has shown you this procedure. However, you can give yourself similar input in the bath, or shower with a loufah sponge, or nylon scrubbie. Then brisk towel dry for added input.

Your goal here is to find the balance of how much input your own body needs each day, and it is cumulative over the course of the day, to feel calm, organized and alert. With children we frequently do this intensively – up to five times a day – for a couple weeks to bring about the start of neurological changes. For an adult? In the beginning possibly three times a day, with other activities, may be good. It's better to try to put yourself on a regular regimen than to "hit and miss". Later, when you are feeling better, you can do this as a preventive exercise, when you know you will be in a stressful situation. Or when you need to feel calmer after the fact.


Let's think about how proprioceptive movements (heavy large muscle movements) can be beneficial for relieving sensory overload, and for maintaining an appropriate sensory balance. Think: push, pull, drag, and stretch those muscles in all sorts of ways! Carry the groceries, lug the laundry, wash the dog, mow the lawn, run around the block. There are limitless ways to add large heavy muscle movement to your day, and several short sessions add up throughout the normal course of your day. Remember, it all adds up to one very balanced, well processing body and brain. If this helps you feel better, you will know it.

Observing and Changing Your Environment

What is triggering nightmare or difficult situations in your life? Discovering what your own triggers are can help you to reduce, eliminate or avoid them, thereby reducing sensory overload. Ask yourself a few questions the next time you are stressed or about to go nuclear. Is somebody in particular setting you off? You have every right to pick and choose your friends carefully. You can limit or eliminate any relationships in your life that are destructive.

"What exactly is bothering you about this place? Now, change that if possible."

Is the issue where you are right now? Are you in a busy grocery store that is overwhelming? An office that is stressful? Too many loud sounds, too bright of lights? What exactly is bothering you about this place? Now, change that if possible. Shop early in the morning or later in the evening when stores are not crowded. Can you look for another job that is not so stressful? If not, can you give yourself short breaks when needed throughout the day to calm, relax and settle?

How are you feeling? Can you use the techniques you learned from the ALERT program to help you calm yourself, by adding sensory input? What's bothering you? Smells, sounds, lights, touches? Can you modify it, get away from it or reduce it? Can you over ride it with something else, or a different task?

On the Home Front

And finally we get to your own home environment. This may be the single most important step in helping yourself. Creating a sensory friendly living environment, to reduce sensory overload.

Since we know that sensory input occurs all day long through all of our senses, what we accumulate, helpful and not helpful through our day is very important. Think of this in terms of negative input (as in stress, bad relationships, work issues, an uncomfortable home environment) and positive input. What you want to do, as an SPD adult is increase the positive, and decrease the negative, every day.

Make Your Home Your Sanctuary

Start with your home. Wherever you live, you can change things to make your home more sensory friendly. Go through the list of all your senses and think about what you can do to make the input more comforting and friendly.

  • Visual: Lower the wattage on your light bulbs. It's easier on you to have five 25 watt bulbs than one glaring 75 watt bulb. Find something that is soothing to you, visually. A fire in the fireplace? An aquarium? A view out your window? Take advantage of many options to make a place in your home that is a soothing visual experience.
  • Smells: Do you love the scent of a certain candle? A roast baking in the crock pot? Cookies? What smell, if there is one or more, do you find soothing? Use it.
  • Tactile: Get rid of what is obnoxious to you, and replace with fabrics, furniture, and materials that make you go – "Ahhhhhh". This need not be expensive, do what you can, as you can. The softest blanket on the couch can make a huge difference in how you feel. Sheets of a material that you love. Change what bothers your skin to what is soothing for you. Then roll up with that material, give yourself not only a pleasant experience with the fabric, but add some deep pressure while you're at it by rolling up tightly for a few minutes. Have hand fidgets nearby to squeeze, smash and bend to get more tactile input and relieve stress.
  • Auditory: What sounds are soothing to you, and what are repulsive and stressful? Reduce or eliminate as many sounds in your home that bother you as you can. If the clank of dishes and silverware at suppertime drive you insane? Add a table cloth to reduce the noise. And add sounds that are soothing. The sound of a waterfall? White noise? No noise? A sound machine so you can choose the noise? Soft sweet music? If certain sounds are soothing to you, use them to help you.
  • Oral: Provide yourself with more oral input, if you feel it is helpful. Try to replace bad oral habits with better ones. Is sucking a thick milkshake through a straw soothing and calming? Playing an instrument that you have to blow through your mouth? Chewing on crunchy or chewy snacks? Pay attention to what you eat, and use this method to add sensory input that makes you feel calmer.
  • Vestibular: Do you have a swing nearby? You are never too old to swing, slowly even, if you have to. A hammock can be extremely soothing. A rocker in your home or on the porch, so you can watch the sun rise or set while rocking. Vestibular input is achieved by having your body in motion while your head is tilted in different angles. Spinning is good, and you may have to be inventive as an adult to get this input.

What Can You Get Out of This?

The more you reduce the negative and increase the positive, the better you will feel, and the more you can tolerate and cope with. The more "in sync" you will become. Whether or not you are in active OT therapy, creating a comfortable home environment can only help you. You are the expert on what is soothing to you. Replace undesirable habits with better, safer, healthier ones.

Trust yourself, and believe in yourself. You can find peace and comfort, at least in your home. You can learn about behaviors and feelings that always were SPD symptoms. Stop feeling guilty, or unworthy, or unlovable. You have been misunderstood all your lives, but do not have to be anymore. Every day more is learned about Adult SPD. Studies are ongoing, books are coming out. People are beginning to talk about it and learn from each other. You are not alone anymore.

You have hope and possibilities now, that you never dreamed possible. Read anything written you can find on Adult SPD, except the nonsense some say, that it doesn't exist. Don't bother reading that. They are wrong. You live it and you know better.

Sharon Heller, an adult with SPD wrote a wonderful book you can probably relate to: "Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight – What to Do if You are Sensory Defensive in an Overstimulating World".

Take from these suggestions what helps you, disregard the rest. And know, that things are getting better. Once this Pandora's Box called SPD was opened, as it surely is now, it will never be closed again.

— Written by Michelle Morris, March 2007

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