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Preliminary Study of How Sensory Differences Impact Adults

Researchers (aka #sensorynerds) at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida recently talked with a handful of adults with SPD. Their goal was to understand how SPD shows up in daily adult life and draw attention to both the need for and the limited access to sensory treatment across the lifespan.

The study revealed several SPD paradoxes, such as the extremes of higher-than-normal performance in some arenas coupled with lower-than-normal capacities for participation.

"Being around other people is hard. I might as well kick butt at it if I have to do it!"

The researchers state, "The adult population has been under addressed and there are significant implications of the risk of occupational deprivation and need for occupational justice related to this population." They point to the practice niche of addressing SPD in children and the practice gap of supporting these individuals as they age into adulthood. In other words, adults with SPD need help, and they can't get it.

Here are the key take-aways from the study:

  1. Living with SPD requires significant self-regulation tools

  2. The environment (physical, cultural, institutional, social, and socio-economic) can either be a barrier to participation or support performance

  3. Social settings can be challenging, and social participation is heavily impacted

  4. Time in nature can relieve symptoms of sensory stress

  5. Meaningful activities (occupations) can be extremely paradoxical -- there can be a pendulum swing from excellence in task performance (especially in school, work, and family roles, as well as in areas of deep personal interest and talent) to partial or complete task avoidance.

  6. Withdrawal serves as a means of coping and is evidence of depletion of functional capacity (e.g., "running out of steam").

"Navigating the peaks and valleys of SPD can feel like an extreme sport . It's exhausting."

The five participants were recruited by the lead researcher (Nicole Quint, DrOT, OTR/L), based on her previous work with them. There were four women and one man in the study. This study is a call to action and concludes with the apt statement, "From an occupational justice perspective, the time to explore the needs of the population to better serve their occupational needs has come."


The research study, titled "Exploring the Lived Experience of Adults With Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD): A Phenomenological Study" was authored by Nicole Quint, DrOT, OTR/L, Chelsea McKenna, Amanda Messingschlager, Alexia Bien, and Emma Smith. The study was published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, Volume 73, Number 4 (Supplement 1) in August 2019.

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