- Lisa Cooseman, OTR/L, MS
Sensory Processing Q&A
What does sensory processing mean for you?
At Leaps and Bounds, we often have Occupational Therapy students come in to observe the work we do. We recently had Makenna, an OT student from Maryville, observing a session with one of our Occupational Therapists, Kelsey. After the session, Makenna expressed to Kelsey that she had struggled with many of the same things that she observed in Kelsey’s client, Maya.
Makenna remembered as a child feeling bothered by clothes and having difficulty managing her emotions about these tactile experiences. Kelsey brought up the idea of letting Maya interview Makenna about her experiences as a way to help Maya through some of her struggles. We wanted to share the interview as a way to help others understand what it may be like for someone with sensory processing difficulties.
What does your tactile defensiveness feel like to you?
I can feel every single part of clothing that touches my skin. The seams in clothing that I wear, the shirt that is too tight, and the scratchy feeling of some material on my skin. Tactile defensiveness impacted my daily life when I was younger but I have ways to cope and it is no longer something that interferes with my day-to-day life. I can still feel the seam that runs across each of my toes when I wear socks and I still prefer to wear clothing that is soft and loose but it is not something that has my attention every second of the day anymore. I push aside the thoughts and feelings and I am only really bothered by them when I focus on the discomfort.
Is it only clothing that bothers you or do other things bother you as well, in regards to tactile hypersensitivity?
In addition to clothing, I have always been hypersensitive to hot/cold temperatures. My mother had to dress me in a full snow suit in the winter before we got into the car and then undress me (socks, shoes, gloves, etc.) before I sat down. This process caused a complete meltdown because of the clothing (tactile hypersensitivity) and then the temperature change put me over the edge.
It has been only recently that I have realized that when I am feeling any sort of strong emotion, whether that is feeling sad or mad, I do not want people around me to talk or touch me. My mother shared that all of these hypersensitivities were present in my everyday life from the time I was extremely young. I could not be consoled or talked to when my clothing was bothering me and it caused me to become aggravated and unreasonable. I notice now that I am older I feel calm and organized when I am wearing comfortable clothes. When I am uncomfortable in what I am wearing or the environment around me (temperatures specifically) and dealing with stress, it increases all of my emotions in that moment. I am now able to handle my feelings more appropriately compared to when I was younger, however, my close friends and family notice that I may be short-tempered or withdrawn socially in situations where my clothing or other things (temperatures/environment) are bothering me.
What are some of your strategies to cope with tactile defensiveness when it comes to clothing?
I have developed strategies over the years that have helped me cope with clothing that is undesirable or uncomfortable. I always bring a change of clothes with me so that as soon as I am done with the period of time requiring specific clothing, I can change into clothes I am comfortable in for the ride home or the remainder of the day. I also prepare myself the night before by giving myself more time in the morning, waking up to music, turning on my Scentsy warmer, and making sure that my clothes are ready (including my change of clothes!). I have adult coloring books, card games, and books that also help me feel calm if I have any anxiety about the day.
Have you ever not been able to engage in a preferred activity due to clothing requirements?
It has been a long time since I haven’t been able to engage in activities due to clothing requirements. When I was in elementary and middle school I missed multiple days of school, field trips, and activities because I simply wasn’t having a “good day”. My parents had a calendar that they would mark each day as a “good day” if I got out the door on time and made it to school. It was an accomplishment to get three days in a row. There were some mornings where I was able to get my clothes on and go to school but by the time I got home I was in a full meltdown. I remember not being able to participate in school based activities and sports because I couldn’t bring myself to wear the uniform that was required for the activity.
As a successful adult, how do you cope with your tactile defensiveness? Does it ever go away?
I can still feel every seam across my toes when I wear socks and I still want to tug at my khaki pants to make them feel less smothering on my skin. It has never gone away completely for me but I am able to cope with the tactile defensiveness with the understanding that everything I feel is temporary. I have put in place strategies that I incorporate to make the transition easier and am not spending hours getting ready or having meltdowns over putting on a pair of shoes. I don’t have to buy a new shirt each time I wash it just because it “feels” differently. I still have tactile defensiveness and I prefer to wear and not wear certain clothing but it is something that I have grown to accept and I don’t struggle to get ready or wear clothing like I did growing up.
Makenna and Maya were able to use their experiences to help each other. We wanted to share this amazing experience with everyone!
At Leaps and Bounds, we work to help kids better process the environment around them, but also develop strategies to manage their day. We know that sensory processing difficulties can be different for everyone, but if you have a child that is struggling with sensory processing and emotional regulation, we would like to be a resource.