Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory processing disorder, or synesthesia, describes the way the nervous system responds to sensory stimulus. Under normal circumstances, your brain is able to identify and interpret inputs from a variety of sources at the same time.

For example: eating dinner in a restaurant, on the patio, with a band playing, you will be absorbing sensory input from a variety of sources such as:

  • The flavor, temperature, and aroma of the food and beverages
  • Conversations from other diners
  • The music from the band
  • The sound of insects, or the breeze, or the smell of flowers out on the patio.

A person with good sensory processing can easily tell the difference between all of those sensory inputs, and even ignore some of them. However, a person with sensory processing disorder may have a lot more trouble dealing with conflicting sensations that are all happening at the same time. Some, like the feel of clothing on the skin, could be annoying and distracting, others could be confusing or even terrifying.

Sensory processing disorder can affect one or more senses. That means it’s possible for someone to have difficulty processing bright colors, but not loud noises; or complex textures, including the textures of foods, but not flavors.

People with sensory processing disorder might be clumsy or uncoordinated, because they have difficulty with proprioception, or body awareness.

What Causes Sensory Processing Disorder?

Currently, doctors don’t know what causes sensory processing disorder, but they do know that it’s common among children who are also somewhere on the autism spectrum. Overall, synesthesia is more commonly diagnosed in children, but adults can also be affected, especially if they went untreated in childhood. Adults with the disorder could have difficulty performing or focusing on routine tasks, and their symptoms could be misdiagnosed as Adult Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

Although the condition is potentially debilitating, with the proper diagnosis and treatment, individuals can lead normal and productive lives.

Treatment generally involves a combination occupational therapy with a focus on sensory integration, which can be done at home or at a facility, and family therapy, to get parents and siblings involved in the process.

In addition to therapy, families also learn coping techniques, such as the use of compression garments.

How Compression Garments Help Sensory Processing Disorder
You might be familiar with compression garments for adults. Typically, they’re used to improve blood flow, which can enhance athletic performance and speed up recovery time after exercise. Doctors also prescribe compression therapy products to prevent the foot and leg swelling that can be caused by anything from long airline flights to venous insufficiency (a condition that causes poor circulation in the legs).

With children with sensory processing disorder, compression garments have a very different effect. They typically work in several major ways:

  • They can provide a barrier against clothing that might cause sensory overload
  • They can take the place of clothing that might cause discomfort
  • Then can creating a gentle hugging sensation, which many people with SPD find calming.

For example, regular socks might droop, sag, or have seams across the toes and around the heel, which some people with SPD find unbearable. Compression socks are designed to fit snuggly around the ankles and calves, so they don’t droop. They also tend to be smoother than traditional socks, and come may come without seams.

Compression pants and tops fit snugly around the limbs and torso to create a hugging sensation. When worn under clothing, they prevent the clothes from rubbing directly against the skin. Although the compression clothing is generally used on children with SPD, adults with the disordermight also find them effective.

If you suspect that your child has SPD, contact your pediatrician or schedule an appointment with a pediatric psychiatrist or psychologist. If you are interested in purchasing compression clothing for your children, there are several retailers that specialize in compression and weighted clothing for special needs children.


Seeing Stars and Feeling Blue

Dear Mr. Dad: I hope this doesn’t sound too crazy, but here goes. My 7-year old son has been telling me for a while that he “hears colors.” I asked him what he meant and he told me that when he says the alphabet or counts, or when people say certain words, he sometimes sees colors. At first I thought he might be having some kind of hallucinations, but he seems perfectly fine in every other area of his life. Is this anything to worry about?

A: From what you describe, it sounds like your son may have a neurological condition called synesthesia. That’s when stimulating one sense—such as your son’s sense of hearing—also triggers the sensation of another one—the colors he perceives. (I have to admit that I only recently learned about synesthesia while doing an interview with Maureen Seaberg, the author of a fascinating book called, Tasting the Universe.

While synesthesia is a condition, it’s by no means a disease. In fact, many see it as a gift, and research shows that synesthetes (people who have synesthesia) often have higher-than-average IQs. While the condition (there’s that word again) may affect as much as five percent of the population, it tends to run in families, and it’s much more common among artists, writers, other creative people (synesthetes are also more likely to be left handed.)

There are actually quite a few different types of synesthesia which can involve any of the senses (although usually only two at a time). Some find that reading, saying, or even thinking certain words triggers a taste, which may explain why these folks sometimes have trouble focusing on what they’re reading. Others, like your son, see colors when they read. Still others hear sounds when they move in certain ways or even see certain kinds of movement. Personally, I find this stuff absolutely fascinating.

What’s especially interesting is that for kids, the connection between the senses may change—the numbers your son sees as turquoise today may be a different color later. But in adulthood, things solidify. For example, if the word antelope is blue or smells like licorice, or if Lady Gaga’s voice tastes like strawberries, it always will.

Quite a few famous people have or had synesthesia. In an interview with Seaberg, violinist Itzhak Perlman says that when he plays a B-flat on the G string he sees a deep forest green, while an A on the E string is red. Musician and producer Pharnell Williams (who’s written songs for Justin Timberlake, Madonna, Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Nelly, and many more) says that his music-to-color synesthesia is his “only reference for understanding.” Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman saw equations in color. And actress Tilda Swinton hears food: The word “table,” for example, tastes like cake, while the word “tomato,” reportedly tastes like a lemon instead of, well, a tomato.

So the bottom line is that unless your son’s affects your son’s life in a negative way, there’s nothing to worry about. But if you truly are worried, ask your pediatrician for some guidance. If you’re interested in finding out more about synesthesia on your own, Tasting the Universe is a great place to start. The Synesthesia Resource Center ( has all sorts of tasty pieces of information. You might also want to have your son take the synesthesia battery at In fact, take it yourself.