In recent discussions, both in-person and on Twitter, it has become clear that helping loved ones with SPD find comfort in this overstimulating world can be difficult.
So here are 12 things you can do to support loved ones with SPD.
It’s something you can give for the holidays. And it’s free!
1. Try to understand their way of thinking, and don’t always expect them to understand yours. Those with SPD are already adjusting too much to the rest of the world, so they need extra understanding from loved ones.
2. Be patient with them. Adults and children with SPD are filtering out more stimuli than most, which slows down their already delayed processing, so expecting them to do things quickly isn’t always possible. If you speak too quickly or demand responses from someone with SPD, they are likely to become overwhelmed. If instead, you let them set the pace, they are more likely to respond calmly. Also, SPD affects motor skills, making physical movement difficult. If they move slowly or are clumsy, be forgiving, they are not doing it on purpose.
3. Avoid using language that implies their disorder is their fault or that having a disorder, in general, is negative. Saying things like: Get over it, Stop being so picky, Stop making it so hard for yourself, Stop being so sensitive, or Stop being so defensive, can really make someone with SPD feel bad. They can’t help how their brain processes information, so don’t punish them for it.
4. Be their eyes, ears, nose and mouth for them. Noticing and preventing a possible trigger could avoid a meltdown, especially if they are nonverbal or are unable to express their needs. Consider things like:
- Are the lights bright or alternating in their pattern? Are they fluorescent? Are they overhead?
- Are there loud sounds, music or multiple conversations occurring?
- Are there strong or foreign smells? Remember, this doesn’t mean for you, but for them. For example, my husband loves oranges, but the smell of them overwhelms me.
- Are there foods they can’t eat? Have they eaten in the last few hours? Remember, because of their excessive intake of sensory stimuli, their blood sugar drops quickly, and they need to eat every few hours.
- Do they look overwhelmed? Are unexpected things happening? If so, try to remove them from the situation. You can suggest they go to the restroom or step outside.
5. Get to know their preferences and don’t push them to try new things. Stick to bland, plain things and allow them to spice things up if they choose to. For example, there are days when all I can stomach are bland foods like rice or toast or when I can only wear cotton-based fabrics. If I have no other choice than to eat spicy food or to wear another fabric, I will surely have a meltdown.
6. Help them find alternatives for daily things that trouble them. If they don’t like showering, suggest a bath. If they don’t want to wash their hair, suggest dry shampoo. If being in public is difficult for them, suggest wearing earplugs or headphones or staying home. If they seem overstimulated, suggest they get some exercise or meditate to calm them down. Suggest they leave places or situations when they are overwhelmed.
7. Be understanding of their sensory needs and of their need to control their environment. Visit them at their home where they can control the stimuli. If they visit you, try to avoid possible sensory triggers: don’t spray perfume or cologne, don’t light scented candles, avoid using fluorescent or overhead lights. If you go out, let them have input on where you eat and on where they sit. Help them understand what to expect at social gatherings and avoid unexpected plan changes, including having unexpected people attend.
8. Do calming activities with them that don’t involve being around too much stimuli. Exercise or do yoga with them. Meditate with them. Being in nature is great for those with SPD, even in the winter. Go for a walk, sit by water or simply be in a quiet outdoor space to help them reset.
9. Understand their need to be alone. Those with SPD have a difficult time managing the stimuli that interactions bring, so don’t take it personally if they need some time out. It will allow them to re-energize and to come back ready to interact.
10. Educate yourself on SPD and on what it means to be neurodiverse. Read books that explain their disorders and follow the neurodiverse community on social media: #neurodiverse, #neurodivergent, #sensoryprocessingdisorder, #ActuallyAutistic, #ADD, #ADHD, #OCD, etc.
11. Advocate for their rights: join advocacy groups, stand up for them in social settings, push for their rights in school and at work. Be their voice, especially for those who are nonverbal.
12. Give them some extra love, especially around the holidays when their senses are constantly overstimulated due to all the additional lights, colors, smells, sounds and activities everywhere. Your love and understanding will be the best gifts you could ever give them.