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Neurodivergent Sensory Sensitivity

Updated: Feb 13

Purple to pink gradient background with a brain (left side rainbow, right side blue) in the middle. Text on the left "Communicating in a world" Text on the right "that's NOT made for us"

This Neurodivergent Sensory Sensitivity article explores the 8 senses and the difficulties many Neurospicy people experience with hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity to each of the senses along with some ways to combat both hyper- hyposensitvitiy to each sensory type.

The Eight Senses

You've probably been taught the five basic senses. These are the senses we use daily and that many of us can easily describe. However, there are more types of sensory input that many of us are never taught and you may be learning of for the first time right now. For that reason, I'll first quickly go over the 5 senses and then describe the three additional senses that are less commonly known.

The 5 Main Senses

  1. Visual (Sight)

  2. Auditory (Sound)

  3. Olfactory (Smell)

  4. Tactile (Touch)

  5. Gustatory (Taste)

The Integrative Senses

  1. Vestibular (Balance/Orientation) The Vestibular sense helps us to maintain upright and balanced and orient ourselves to the world around us. This sense is controlled by the vestibular apparatus located in the inner ear and allows us to move our eyes, maintain our posture, and coordinate equilibrium.

  2. Interoceptive (Internal Body Regulation) The Interoceptive sense allows us to identify and regulate our internal signals and processes. This includes awareness of internal processes such as the need to use the restroom, hunger/thirst, heartrate, etc. as well emotions and the physiological reactions that accompany them.

  3. Proprioceptive (Muscle/Joint Sensation) The Proprioceptive sense tells us what our muscles and joints need to do based on the sensations created by external factors. An example is when walking through sand - the proprioceptive sense tells us that we need to adjust the pressure and placement of our legs and feet to accommodate the sinking sensation that makes sand difficult to maneuver.

Neurospicy Sensory Processing

Sensory processing difficulties (both hyper- and hyposensitivity) are common for Neurodivergent people and vary from person to person.

Many studies have shown that sensory processing difficulties are highly comorbid with ADHD and can have an impact on the severity of ADHD symptoms.

Sensory processing difficulties are part of the diagnostic criteria of Autism in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and one study showed that 94.4 percent of adults with ASD experienced "extreme" levels of sensory processing symptoms.

There is not enough research on complex PTSD in and of itself and less so on the sensory processing abilities of those with CPTSD. However, one study showed a strong association with childhood trauma and sensory processing differences.

Regardless of the research done on these disorders and sensory difficulties, individuals should identify their own difficulties with sensory input rather than assume their disorder will assign them some. Every person is different and our shared diagnoses do not change that. Below are some explanations and examples of sensory hyper- and hyposensitivities. Use them to help you understand the way you process sensory input!

Sensory Sensitivity

Hypersensitivity, when used in reference to sensory input, refers to overwhelming or abnormally increased sensitivity to sensory input that can cause discomfort and disrupt your ability to function "normally" around said sensory stimuli.

Hyposensitivity, in reference to sensory input, refers to difficulty identifying or responding to sensory input that can cause a need for increased sensory stimuli or accommodations when responding to hyposensitive sensory input.

Handout with sections for all 8 senses including examples of both hypersensitivities and hyposensitivities.
Neurospicy Senses

Neurospicy Sensory
Download PDF • 218KB

The following (similar to the free handout above) are some examples of how the different types of sensory hypo- and hypersensitivities can manifest.

Visual (Sight)

  • Hypersensitivity Symptoms

    • Overwhelm from

      • Bright lights

      • Bright Colors

      • Clutter/busy sights

    • Discomfort with eye contact

  • Hyposensitivity Symptoms

    • Poor depth perception

    • Trouble finding things

    • Difficulty with differentiating details

    • Preference for bright/loud sights

Auditory (Sound)

  • Hypersensitivity Symptoms

    • Overwhelm from loud and/or competing noises

    • Hearing and/or being bothered by noises others can't hear or don't notice

    • Discomfort with loud and/or abrupt sounds

  • Hyposensitivity Symptoms

    • Need for loud or busy sounds

    • Trouble locating the source of sounds

    • Needing high volume and/or subtitles

    • Verbal stims

      • Making or repeating

        • noises

        • words

        • phrases

Olfactory (Smell)

  • Hypersensitivity Symptoms

    • Sensitivity to smells

    • Aversion to foods (and other things) because of their odor

    • Negative reactions to smells:

      • headaches

      • nausea

      • vomiting

      • nose/sinus pain

  • Hyposensitivity Symptoms

    • Trouble identifying smells

    • Craving strong scents (like perfume)

    • Preference for strong/spicy foods

Tactile (Touch)

  • Hypersensitivity Symptoms

    • Discomfort with

      • crowds

      • small spaces

    • Aversion to

      • textures

      • clothing

      • surfaces

    • Aversion to "messy" things

  • Hyposensitivity Symptoms

    • High pain threshold

    • Craving pressure

      • tight fitting clothes

      • weighted blankets

    • Discomfort with light touch

    • Preference for rought/harder touches

Gustatory (Taste)

  • Hypersensitivity Symptoms

    • Averse reactions flavors/textures

      • nausea

      • gagging

      • headaches

    • Narrow food choices

    • Overwhelm with

      • strong flavors

      • competing flavors

      • food textures

  • Hyposensitivity Symptoms

    • Desire to eat or bite nonfood items

    • Binge eating or impulsive eating

      • specifically stimulating foods:

        • carbonated drinks

        • salty/crunchy snacks

        • gum/hard candies

Vestibular (Balance/Orientation)

  • Hypersensitivity Symptoms

    • Difficulty with balance

    • Motion sickness

    • Fear of (or aversion to)

      • quick movements

      • physical exertion

    • Preference for sedentary and grounded

  • Hyposensitivity Symptoms

    • Need for movement to regulate

      • fidgeting

      • leaving seat often

      • rocking

    • Preference for fast and/or impulsive activities

Interoceptive (Internal Body Regulation)

  • Hypersensitivity Symptoms

    • Hyperawareness of physiological cues

      • heartbeat

      • digestion

      • bladder fullness

    • Hyperawareness can lead to:

      • anxiety

      • panic

      • discomfort

  • Hyposensitivity Symptoms

    • Trouble identifying physiological cues:

      • bladder fulness

      • hunger

      • thirst/dehydration

      • exhaustion

      • physical sensations

Proprioceptive (Muscle/Joint Sensation)

  • Hypersensitivity Symptoms

    • Preference for groundedness

      • feet/body firmly supported

    • Feeling the need to lean on things often

    • Difficulty with fine motor skills

      • poor handwriting (Dyspraxia)

  • Hyposensitivity Symptoms

    • Poor body awareness

      • poor balance

      • clumsiness

    • Craving weighted pressure

      • similar to *touch hyposensitivity

Managing Sensory Sensitivity

Below are some examples of accommodations, coping skills, and other tools that can help manage sensory processing difficulties.

Visual (Sight)

  • Hypersensitivity Management

    • Reduce use of florescent (or other overwhelming) lights

    • Wear shaded or blue light blocking glasses when looking at screens or being under overwhelming lights

    • Use lamps rather than bright overhead lights

    • Reduce visual clutter in home or other spaces

    • Designate a low visual stimulation space (because we all know reducing clutter everywhere is easier said than done)

  • Hyposensitivity Management

    • Use open shelving or other open organization

    • Use a variety of lighting based on your needs

    • Focus on small spaces rather than the full picture

    • Use visually stimulating art/decor

Auditory (Sound)

  • Hypersensitivity Management

    • Use noise cancelling headphones or ear plugs (like Loop)

    • Play soft/quiet background noise

    • Avoid triggering noises when possible

    • Designate a quiet space

  • Hyposensitivity Management

    • Use visual cues:

      • subtitles

      • written instructions

      • transcripts

    • Accept the need for verbal stims (unmasking)

    • Make a stimulating music/sound playlist

Olfactory (Smell)

  • Hypersensitivity Management

    • Avoid or minimize fragrances

    • Increase ventilation

      • open windows

      • air purifier

    • Use unscented "odor eliminators"

    • Use unscented soaps, cleaning supplies, etc.

  • Hyposensitivity Management

    • Label foods well (contents and expiration)

      • Check labels to ensure safety

    • Use smelling salts or other strong scents

Tactile (Touch)

  • Hypersensitivity Management

    • Use seamless or tagless clothing

    • Set boundaries about touch

      • Specify both wanted and unwanted touches

    • Avoid triggering textures/materials when possible

  • Hyposensitivity Management

    • Identify and keep soothing textures/materials close by

    • Use weighted or compression clothing, bedding, etc.

    • Set boundaries about wanted/unwanted touches (as above)

Gustatory (Taste)

  • Hypersensitivity Management

    • Keep "safe" foods around

    • Keep a list of filling and non-stimulating foods

      • "bland" or simple texture options

    • Don't force overstimulating foods - eat what feels right

  • Hyposensitivity Management

    • Try stimulating foods/tastes

      • flavored water

      • mints/hard candies

      • sour candies

      • crunchy snacks

    • Chew jewelry

      • when you need to bite something

    • Eat when hungry - stimulating foods/tastes are not a replacement for food

Vestibular (Balance/Orientation)

  • Hypersensitivity Management

    • Shorten car rides

    • Avoid triggers of motion sickess if possible

    • Use grounding exercises

      • 54321

    • Practice low impact/movement exercise

      • weight lifting

      • resistance training

  • Hyposensitivity Management

    • Utilize fidget/movement breaks

    • Consider a fidget chair or yoga ball when sedentary

    • Swing!

    • Indoor Trampoline

    • Designate sensory time (movement time)

Interoceptive (Internal Body Regulation)

  • Hypersensitivity Management

    • Use breathing exercises

      • square breathing

      • 4,7,8 breathing

    • External grounding

      • bringing awareness to surroundings/environment rather than the body/mind

    • Use DBT regulating exercises

      • TIPP

      • Paired Muscle Relaxation

  • Hyposensitivity Management

    • Practice body awareness

      • physical sensation checks throughout the day

    • Keep food and hydration nearby

    • DBT Mindfulness Exercises

      • Body Scan

      • Mindful Breathing

Proprioceptive (Muscle/Joint Sensation)

  • Hypersensitivity Management

    • Low impact physical exercise

      • yoga

      • swimming

      • walking

    • Avoid clothing/items with laces, buttons, etc. when necessary and possible

    • Use grip assistance for pens/pencils

    • Use stress ball or similar when overwhelmed

  • Hyposensitivity Management

    • Resistance or weighted exercises

    • Open spaces (reduce clutter)

    • Deep pressure

      • weighted blankets

      • hugs

      • compression clothing

Another wonderful resource for dealing with sensory struggles while Neurodivergent is this FREE Neurodivergent-Friendly DBT Workbook created by Sonny Jane Wise @livedexperienceeducator

Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions? Leave your comments below!

Stay weird,

Neurospicy Therapist


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