Most people think I’m a little weird, and that may very well be true, but I also have a bizarre neurological condition called Sensory Processing Disorder. That means my brain doesn’t process incoming sensory data properly. Some stimuli trigger an exaggerated fight-or-flight response, especially certain textures and soft sounds, because my brain interprets the information as a serious threat. Therefore, simple everyday things that most people don’t even notice can be completely overwhelming to me.
To give you an idea what SPD is like, try and imagine how your body would feel if a burglar suddenly entered your home with a weapon drawn. Most likely you would experience a sudden onset of anxiety, while your body filled with adrenalin and your heart raced. Your mind would scramble for ideas to get out of the life-threatening situation. You would instinctively do anything you could to stay alive. Well, my brain responds in a similar way to simple ordinary things, like a keyboard typing or a whispered conversation or even the texture of a Popsicle stick or cardboard. I can be perfectly calm and happy one minute but if someone walks by wearing flip-flops then my body revolts at the sound of each snap against their heel and my spine curls with discomfort. When I’m in a crowd of people at a restaurant, an event, or even at church, I’m probably not engaged in much conversation. I may appear to be anti-social or unfriendly, but I’m really just focusing all my energy towards preventing a meltdown because my brain struggles to decipher which conversations are important, since they all blend together into a nonsensical mess.
As a child simply getting dressed was World War III between me and my parents. I couldn’t bear to feel the seams in my socks or have hair in my face. Elastic waistbands and gathered sleeves were especially troublesome. Most fabrics made my skin feel like it was on fire. The only time I wasn’t screaming and yanking on my bothersome garb was when I was allowed to relax in soft, comfortable, cotton pajamas…as long as the tags were cut out. But, of course, that wasn’t acceptable attire for Sunday school. So it became a weekly ritual for my mother and father to each grab one of my arms and legs and wrestle me into a dress and into our car for church, while I screamed bloody murder.
We always ate dinner as a family and my siblings and I weren’t allowed to get up or leave until our plates were cleaned. That was a setup for disaster for me. With each clank of a fork against a ceramic plate, or a crunch of ice, my whole body tensed up in defense and I felt like I was going to self-combust. My heart raced and panic flooded over me in mere seconds. It was extremely unpleasant and not a single mealtime was excluded. I cried and feverishly kicked my legs, with my hands covering both ears, and I tried to survive…while the rest of my family seemed to enjoy their meals. Many times I was left alone at the table while everyone else was allowed to enjoy their favorite TV shows, because I had refused to eat or participate like a normal human being.
It’s also a strange and seemingly random disorder because some things may provoke an involuntary meltdown, but I can be under-responsive to other things. For example, loud music, spinning around and deep pressure are soothing and calm me down. And sometimes a harmful wound, that should be painful, may go completely unnoticed. I often get bruises or cuts without even being aware of the event that caused the wound.
While I was growing up, neither researchers nor therapists had identified the disorder yet and I wasn’t formally diagnosed until I was forty years old. So most of my life everyone just assumed I was an ornery brat and I was almost always in trouble at home and school.
I realized early in life that I was different from others. So I believed I was an unlovable, broken mistake. But God doesn’t make mistakes. He has brought me on an amazing journey to show me that my SPD is actually a gift. I experience colors, patterns, and music at a very detailed and emotional level that most people miss out on. So, for that I am VERY grateful. All I need now is a leather uniform and cape to go with my mutant super-human powers.
For more insights about how I perceive the world with a sensory disorder, and how I overcome a world of chaos and misunderstanding, please watch my TED Talk: