If you ask my mother what I was like as a child, she might first come up with adjectives like determined, competitive, smart, or sassy. But I guarantee if you get her talking about me for more than one sentence, she will mention how much I used to hate the seam of my sock being off-center on my foot. A weird thing to mention, you may think, but you didn’t know second-grade Molly. Sock seam in the wrong spot was more than a day-ruiner; it was an all out declaration of war against the textiles. I was like a podiatrist’s princess and the pea. Something about that tiny sliver of thread curling under the joint of my baby toe made me absolutely lose my marbles.
The issues didn’t end there. I have always had a *thing* against toothpaste, and tooth-brushing in general; something about the way it foams at the mouth and creates those gurgly sounds makes me feel like I’ve just heard a set of stiletto acrylics against the classroom chalkboard while simultaneously twisting my stomach like a day in the first trimester without Diclegis. Gum chewing takes second place in my hall of hatred, with the word “moist” grabbing the third place spot. To be perfectly honest, my list of unpleasant stimuli likely stretches a full city block.
All my life, I’ve thought I was the weird one, but after learning more about our sensory systems, I’m coming to realize I may be the rule and not the exception.
All of us have a strikingly complex system in our bodies to process incoming sensations. Sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch: our senses take in information from the outside world and churn it through our brains to come up with an appropriate behavioral reaction. Some of our reactions are unconscious, like bouncing your knee or biting your nails when you’re nervous. Some are conscious, like holding our breath when we smell a poopy diaper.
We each need a certain level of sensory input to get our attention. For example, a coworker clicking his pen repeatedly might be jaw-clenchingly annoying to one person, and another person might not even notice the clicking–because it doesn’t cross the sensory threshold necessary for him to attend to it. We also all have limits on the amount of stimuli we can process before becoming overwhelmed. My husband is easily able do his work in the presence of the TV blaring CNN, 90’s pop radio station on Pandora, and the kids screaming in the background. I will literally burst a blood vessel if I try to formulate coherent ideas in the presence of any stimulus beyond a slight crackle from the fireplace. My husband likes Alexa to play songs at volume 8; I like Alexa to play songs no louder than volume 4.
We each have a different set of preferences, based partially on the way in which our respective sensory processing systems process sensation. The area between stimuli we notice and stimuli that overwhelms us is sometimes called a “sensory diet”. Simply put, a sensory diet is the amount of sensory input we each require in order to meet our body’s needs without sending us into panic. This quota varies greatly from one human to the next, as my husband and I can attest.
Noticeable or negative behaviors in response to “normal” stimuli are sometimes associated with persons on the autism spectrum. Even clinical practitioners tend to lump kids together as those with “SENSORY ISSUES”, and those without. What gets missed by this generalization, however, is that every single human on earth is taking in, processing, and reacting to sensory stimuli constantly throughout the day. Some of us just have responses that are more visible in social settings. For example, if you chew gum in my face, I will make any excuse to leave your presence as quickly as possible. I’m not trying to be rude (though clearly YOU are, you heathen); I’m just practicing self-care. A child that has a huge meltdown at your son’s birthday party may not be used to so much environmental noise. A child wiggling her fingers vigorously in front of her eyes may get a sense of peace from that visual input. If your bestie gives you a weighted blanket for Christmas and gosh if you’ve never felt so safe in your entire life–maybe that weight is satisfying a need for sensory input you weren’t even aware you had. I challenge you to examine your own sensory idiosyncrasies, and to be mindful of what may be another’s sensory threshold.
If you need me, I’ll be over here adjusting my sock.