Sensory Overload in Adults

Parent Q&A

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  • So, as long as I can remember, I've had a ton of tactile sensory sensitivity. Think how annoying seams on the toes of your socks are, then make that much worse and more disruptive. When I was a kid it was tags of shirt, seams on socks, and you know how when you put a jacket on over a long-sleeved shirt and it pulls up your sleeves a little inside? That was horrible.

    It's varied in intensity throughout my life but is getting worse again (I'm in my 40s). I talked to my psychiatrist about it and he said the only people he's ever seen this in are autistic kids (and I've worked with autistic people before and have some autistic friends who are adults and I know that can definitely be a characteristic of living with autism. However, I am not autistic and that would be literally the only autistic trait, so I don't know what's causing it.

    It's driving me CRAZY. When I wear socks that are tight, it pushes my toes together and I hate how they feel when they touch. If I put my hands together in kind of a "namaste" move like after yoga, the palms of my hands touching is too much. If I'm sleeping in shorts, my legs touching feels bad. When I wear a backpack, I'm constantly shifting the backpack strap because I am so aware of it. None of it hurts or itches, it's just THERE and sensory overload.

    I don't even know what I'm asking because I don't think there's actually any help in solving or lessening this but it's just driving me crazy. Has anyone had any experience/have any ideas??

    I think you should see an occupational therapist who has experience in sensory issues. We just started to see one for my chid and she mentioned that skin brushing every night can help with improving sensitivity to touch. There may be other ideas for you as well. 

    good luck!

    I can relate to your post…and you are not alone! I work as an OT and work on this with children and honestly, so many adults also have sensory issues and definitely not only in kids with autism at all, I disagree with your provider. It makes perfect sense to me that we all have preferences and aversions.

    I say adapt, wear socks you like, find a backpack that feels good, adjust it if needed, know that you are not alone. For me I cannot stand the feeling of anything like a polo or crew neck that touches my collarbone, have to wear seamless pajamas, sleep on very soft sheets and a silk pillowcase, and the sound of chewing makes me cringe. For some taking a supplement like magnesium has helped, be sure you have updated blood work too, I find a good bath scrub does wonders for relaxing my skin before bed. 

    I wish I could offer more help but think adaption and finding what does feel good is key.

    I don't have anything to offer in the way of advice but I can certainly commiserate. I have similar sensory issues that have been with me my whole life (I'm 65 now). Can't stand the feeling of high-waisted pants, crewneck tops, socks that don't stay up. I can't bear the bunching up of fabric if I wear pajamas to bed, but I REALLY can't stand the feeling of stickiness on a hot day around all the parts that touch  (behind knees, underarms, thighs) so hot nights are torture. All of my siblings have this same issue. We also all have misophonia—which I actually find much harder to manage. 

    Nobody in my family or extended family is on the spectrum so I think it's just a genetic neurological difference we have to learn to live with. I just avoid all the things that bug me—sandals instead of socks, I NEVER wear long-sleeved shirts under jackets, v-necks instead of crew necks, etc. 


    Sensory processing issues are actually fairly normal even in people without an Autism diagnosis. I suggest you seek out an OT, there is a lot you can do to help yourself regulate the tactile sensitivities you are having. You may also want to take the Adult Sensory Processing Scale to see where you are at, in terms of other sensory conditions (the OT may give you this!). I am currently an OT student and one of my professors created the Adult Sensory scale because she has her own sensory processing issues and found in her research that is much more common that many professionals/people realize. Most Ots that specialize in sensory processing work with children but they may give you some directions or guidance. 

    All the best!

    You sound like a Highly Sensitive Person. There is a very good book you can read. It’s a helpful trait to have, but can also be annoying at times.  

    Look up Sensory Processing Disorder. Everyone has some sensory issues but if they’re overloading you I would look into occupational therapy. In kids there is a strong focus on a daily sensory “diet” that feeds your vestibular, proprioceptive and other needs. When your sensory system is regulated it’s better able to cope with all the inputs you’re describing. My daughter has SPD and in learning about it I realized that I have a TON of sensory sensitivities- I just never knew that was what they were! So does my mom. Making sure you are well fed, we’ll rested, exercised and managing stress are good places to start. Also look up sensory processing groups on Facebook- lots of good tips!

    You might look up Sensory Processing Disorder. It is not autism but perhaps some on the spectrum also experience this. Both of my children have various degrees of sensory sensitivity and we have worked with OTs to address specific issues and to desensitize some of the things that give them discomfort. What helped my kids the most is finding what feels good to them and allowing to wear these items exclusively. That meant one child was in leggings for years and didn’t wear a sweat shirt until they reached their teens. Now no seam socks exists, ultra soft fabrics, and flat lock clothing. This sensitivity does come and go. My child was doing fine and now puberty is affecting the sensory issues more. Now tight is out and loose shorts work the best. We just adapt by allowing them to wear  what feels the best at the time. Good luck.

    Thank you for your question about tactile sensitivity. My 15 year old daughter has this along with anxiety (but not ASD). When she was about 7, she did some occupational therapy for the tactile issues and that was helpful. She did things like practicing putting her hands into bins with water beads and just experiencing different textures, and general emotional regulation work. Now as a teen she is still tactile with her clothes as you describe but has lots of strategies to manage it that mostly accommodate/mitigate the things that bother her. She also tends to feel more tactile when she’s stressed in general. I think there may be a runs in the family component because Grandma is exactly the same about socks. 

    That said, here are some of the things we do, your mileage may vary:

    Seamless socks only (or Crocs without socks)

    Comfortable camisole under all shirts as a soft first layer next to the skin 

    No long sleeve over long sleeve layering, she wears a down vest over a sweater if it’s really cold

    Buy favorite clothing pieces in multiple colors so there are essentially duplicates but it doesn’t look like the same exact outfit every day

    Shop carefully and don’t buy items that aren’t a big yes on comfort. We focus on how the product isn’t made right for her to try and reduce any frustration about difficult shopping. Sometimes this means a lot of patience and paying more for a higher quality product. For example, she had a hard time transitioning to wearing a bra, did only sports bras for years, felt ready to try underwire to get a better shape and more support, had a professional fitting at Revelation in Fit in Piedmont, and then ultimately used that size information to settle on one specific Wacoal bra with a comfort cushion around the underwire which we bought duplicates of in multiple colors.

    I hope you find some of these strategies useful. Please know that you are not alone. You may also find some elements of the book The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron helpful. I don’t think tactile sensitivity is as rare as your psychiatrist may have suggested. My daughter is also a talented artist and I’ve told her that it’s hard to make good art if you don’t feel things deeply, so this kind of sensitivity doesn’t need to be a bad thing.

    Please feel free to reach out directly if you’d like to chat.

    Your psychiatrist wasn't helpful because it's not his field. What you want is an occupational therapist (OT) who is familiar with sensory processing disorder (SPD). There ARE treatments! Ask your PCP for a referral to an OT, then find one who knows SPD.

    Yes, I have this too, and its awful. Sensory processing disorder. Its something I suffered with to some extent as a child, but has just gotten worse in my adult years (I'm 42). It is hard to get a diagnosis on this for an adult, b/c this is, as you said, usually seen in children on the autism spectrum. I have not been diagnosed with autism. I've talked to my therapist about it and she was at a bit of a loss. My issues are tactile and auditory mostly. I get major sensory overload from too much noise. I have to wear quality sunglasses anytime I'm outdoors, because the sun gives me headaches. I'm really sensitive to strong smells, and will get migraines around people wearing perfume. I rip all the tags out of my clothing, but even then, if fabric touches me weird, it can be totally distracting. I highly recommend the book Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight: What to Do If You Are Sensory Defensive in an Overstimulating World. Its got great tips on how to manage this disorder as an adult. 


    My son was diagnosed at about age 4 with sensory processing disorder, and based upon your description, I'm thinking it's very likely that this is what you are experiencing. The good news is, it can be addressed with occupational therapy. SPD shows up in many ways; for my son, he struggled with propreoception (where our body is "in space") as well as auditory overload (automatic flushing toilets were Hell for him). 

    He had great success with Anne Irving, an OT in Oakland. IDK if she's still practicing (we worked with her about a decade ago), or if she works with adults, but I would strongly recommend her.

    Best of luck! I feel sure it can, and will, get better for you.

    Two things came to mind when I read this. Hopefully one of them might help. 

    First, ADHD folks can also suffer from sensory issues. I know my daughter can’t handle certain types of clothes, like jeans for example. She’s also very sensitive to textures of food. If you’re a woman, it’s VERY common for ADHD to be overlooked as it presents quite differently than most folks are aware of, even health professionals. 

    Second, I recommend Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person. Kinda blew my mind when I first read it a few years ago. (Also led to me getting an ADHD diagnosis, which was life changing.)

    Hi - have you considered having your iron levels checked? I'm not a doctor and do not want to give any medical advice but I was experiencing really bad restless legs and lots of creepy crawly feelings up my arms and neck and my doctor had me on an iron supplement that really seemed to help me personally. I understand this may be different from what you are describing!