Neurodivergent Sensory Needs & Adaptations

When you discover that you might be neurodivergent, one of the first things that you might learn
about is sensory needs or your “sensory profile.” As defined in my previous blog on
neurodivergent vocabulary, your sensory profile includes the 5 senses (seeing, hearing, touch,
smell, taste) as well as vestibular (balance and movement), proprioception (body awareness and
pressure), and interoception (awareness of bodily cues). ND folx often have heightened or lower
sensitivities to sensory input. For example, you might really hate loud noises and bright lights,
but enjoy the feeling of a weighted blanket and fidget toys.

What to do as a neurodivergent person

Learning how to regulate your body and emotions as a ND person often needs to start with
knowing your sensory needs and finding adaptations that work for you to feel more comfy and
regulated in your body. In this blog, I’m going to outline each sensory category, what those
needs may look like, and some adaptations that might be helpful for you to try.

Seeing sensory needs

Being hypersensitive to visual stimuli might look like being overstimulated by bright lights,
intense colors, complex patterns, many different visual cues in one space, and could be summed
up as “too much to take in or look at.”

Being hyposensitive to visual stimuli might look like needing extra white lights in your house,
enjoying bright, bold colors and patterns in your living space, and getting bored with low lit,
subtle, dim, drab environments.

Accommodations for sensory needs

Adaptations that could be helpful if you are visually overstimulated:

  • Using lamps in your house with dimmers or soft, warm light bulbs instead of bright, white overhead lights.
  • I use a salt lamp in my bathroom to get ready at night in order to ease the over stimulation of the bedtime routine.
  • Decorate your space with earth tones and neutral colors.
  • Keep your space visually sparse and organized.

Adaptations that could be helpful if you are visually under-stimulated:

  • Using overhead bright lights to help stimulate focus and alertness.
  • Incorporating colorful LED lights in your space to add some color and pizazz.
  • Decorate your space with patterns and bright décor.
  • Maximalism: using many different items, furniture, and décor in your space.

Hearing sensory needs

Being hypersensitive to noises looks like needing to cover your ears when emergency
vehicles pass, being irritated by the sound of a washer/dryer, dogs barking, car horns, or hair
dryers, or being overstimulated in a loud environment like a concert or festival.

Being hypo-sensitive to noises looks like enjoying listening to music at full volume in your
car or air pods, being energized and excited by concerts and festivals, speaking loudly, or
needing extra sound input in order to focus (listening to music and watching TV at the
same time).

Adaptations that could be helpful if you are overstimulated by noise:

  • Loops earplugs have helped me when I am irritated with noises from my neighbors in my apartment or when I’m drying my hair.
  • Some people don’t like the feeling of earplugs and prefer over-the-ear noise defenders.
  • Don’t be ashamed to cover your ears in public if noises are too loud for you.
  • To drown out background noises when overstimulated by sounds but still want to listen to TV or music, I use these noise-cancelling headphones.

Adaptations that could be helpful if you are under-stimulated by noise:

  • Listening to music loudly in your car or earbuds.
  • Turning the volume up on the TV when watching a show or movie.
  • Surrounding yourself with people who enjoy laughing and talking loudly with you.
  • Attending events like concerts and festivals that are loud and exciting.

Touch sensory needs

Being hypersensitive to touch might look like not liking hugs or physical affection, being
uncomfortable or startled by someone resting their hand on your shoulder or lightly touching
your arm, or being uncomfortable and picky about the kinds of clothing, fabric, blankets, towels,
sheets, etc. that you have to touch on a daily basis.

Being hypo-sensitive to touch might look like wanting to hug friends and family as much as
possible, touching every fabric as you walk through a store, enjoying fidget toys and different
textures and sensations, or wanting lots of different blankets and stuffed animals to make you
comfy.

Think about these useful adaptations if you find yourself overstimulated by touch.

  • Asking friends and family to ask for your consent before hugs and knowing you can say “no” if you feel overstimulated.
  • When you shop for new clothes, only buy what is soft enough and physically comfortable for you to wear.
  • Pull tags off your clothes.
  • Invest in soft blankets, sheets, and towels.

Consider these adaptations if you experience under-stimulation from touch:

  • Asking friends and family for more hugs when you want them. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.
  • Buy clothes with different textures that feel fun and new to you.
  • Use weighted blankets and stuffed animals for more tactile input.

Smell sensory needs

Being hypersensitive to smell might look like being extra sensitive to the smells of food from
other apartments or restaurants near you, feeling like you can’t breathe when others are wearing
strong perfume or cologne, struggling being around people who smoke, or certain scents of
candles giving you headaches.

Being hypo-sensitive to smell might look like enjoying smelling all the candles at Bath and Body
Works, liking lots of scents of perfume, candles, lotions, body wash, etc., needing your house to
always smell strongly (using room spray or plug-in scents), or enjoying walking around an area
with lots of restaurants and smelling each distinct scent.

Consider helpful adaptations if smells overstimulate you:

  • Wear a mask in areas or during tasks that you know will be overstimulating.
  • Use perfume and candles that are light and not too strong.
  • I ended up getting rid of all my plug-in scents and car air fresheners because they were too strong and overstimulating when I realized this about myself.
  • Use unscented lotions, soaps, and detergent.

If you experience under-stimulation by smells, consider these helpful adaptations:

  • Experiment with different scents of candles and air fresheners.
  • Use new scents of lotions, soaps, and detergents each time you shop.
  • Wear different perfumes each day.
  • Enjoy going to places like Bath and Body Works or Yankee Candle for the experience of smelling different scents.

Taste sensory needs

Being hypersensitive to taste might look like being a “picky eater” or not liking spicy, acidic, or
sour foods. Foods with numerous flavors or strong tastes, such as garlic or onions, may overstimulate you. Perhaps you have “safe foods” that you eat every single day because you know you like them.

If you are hypo-sensitive to taste you might love to try new foods, enjoy different cultural
cuisines, need strong flavors or lots of different flavors in foods in order to taste them or feel
satisfied, or feel excited by very spicy or very sour foods.

If you are over-stimulated by taste:

  • Having “safe foods” always on hand if going to a friend’s house for dinner.
  • Looking up the menu ahead of time if you’re going to a new restaurant so you know they’ll have something you like.
  • Cooking things that are bland and texturally “safe” for you on a regular basis.
  • Advocate for yourself by asking friends or restaurants to accommodate your food needs.

If you are under-stimulated by taste:

  • Keep hot sauce on hand in case you need to add some flavor to a meal.
  • Try lots of different kinds of foods and cultural cuisines.
  • Eat sour candy or chew gum when you feel under-stimulated.

For the sake of space, I’m going to stop with the 5 senses. In my next post, I am going to delve into
vestibular (balance and movement), proprioception (body awareness and pressure), and
interoception (awareness of bodily cues)!

Sensory needs resources

These are just a few ideas for sensory adaptations, and there are lots more resources out there
that you can find on this stuff. When I was first exploring my sensory
profile, something I found helpful was using these checklists to find my sensory preferences and sensory triggers. In
addition, this DBT workbook for neurodivergent folx has some great ideas and charts that you
can fill in with your own sensory profile.

If you are a resident of North Carolina and would like to have an autistic therapist who can help
you understand your sensory profile, please click on this link to schedule a free consultation!

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