Tactile Hypersensitivity: In the Words of a Sufferer
Holly has sensory processing disorder, with both tactile and auditory hypersensitivities. A smart teenager, Holly scored highest among her classmates on standardized testing and on her SAT. Despite her intelligence, her schoolwork began to suffer because of the classroom environment. Overloaded by tactile and auditory stimuli, she was unable to concentrate and function. Her environment did not accommodate her sensory issues, and it became more and more difficult for her to tolerate classrooms. As a result she eventually finished her education through homeschooling.
Now an adult, Holly shares her story of what it was like for her to attend junior high and high school with sensory processing disorder and what would have made her school experience better.
Difficulties Coping in the Classroom
"There were so many things that were difficult for me in the classroom. The texture of the carpet in the classroom bothered me. The sounds of the teachers’ shoes scraping on the carpet made me want to scream. When tactile or auditory stimuli bother me, I can think of nothing else. I found it unbearable to be forced to sit at my desk, unable to focus on anything other than the sensory stimuli that was tormenting me."
"Certain clothing or items touching me is very irritating to my skin. I try to wear clothes that are the least bothersome, but sometimes my skin still is hypersensitive. ....Moving around sometimes helps. Sitting on an exercise ball where I could rock back and forth would have been better for me than a desk chair."
Fidgeting in the Classroom
"Another classroom issue is that during lectures the teachers expected me to focus my eyes on them. What they did not understand was that I could focus on what they were saying much better if I had been allowed to play with a squeeze ball. Fidgeting with objects was not allowed. The teachers did not understand that the fidgeting enabled me to focus on the teacher. It helped me to focus on an acceptable form of sensory input, instead of stimuli that bothered me."
"Because I also have auditory hypersensitivities, wearing ear plugs or listening to music through headphones would have helped me to concentrate on my classwork. Without something to block or drain out sounds, I could not focus on my work at hand. Instead, I could only focus on the noises that tormented me. To make things worse, when auditory stimuli bother me, my tactile hypersensitivities become worse."
Explaining My Problems to the Class
"In school, especially during my teenage years, I understood that hypersensitivities were not normal. I also knew that they were difficult for others to understand. My moodiness and avoidance behavior probably seemed strange to others. I wish that the teacher would have dedicated a day to explain my disorder to the class. The teacher could have explained what tactile and auditory sensitivities were to help the students understand. I would also have welcomed the students to ask me questions about my disorder. Opening up a dialogue would have brought my disorder out of hiding; it no longer would have been a deep dark secret, which would have enabled me to focus on helping myself instead of trying to cover up my problems. I am sure that a few children would have made fun of me, but I believe the majority of the classroom would have taken a real interest in understanding my disorder. With my peers understanding, I would have been able to do things like wear earplugs, squeeze a ball, sit on an exercise ball and etc., without feeling embarrassed. Of course, I do recommend that a teacher get a student's permission before sharing their disorder with the class."
Things That Would Have Made My Life Easier in the Classroom
"I already talked about wearing earplugs, listening to music through headphones and squeezing a ball; these things definitely would have made school more tolerable for me. But there are other things that would have definitely helped as well. I wish I could have gotten up from my desk and went to a corner where I could have sit in a massage chair, lain down on a vinyl mat with a weighted blanket over me, or lain down in a kiddie pool filled with plastic beads. Escaping from my desk where I could only focus on my overloaded senses, into my corner, would have been such a relief. I know that listening to the teacher while sitting in a massage chair is unconventional, but it would have helped me to focus on lectures and my classwork. When you look at these items — massage chair, mats, headphones, kiddie pool, etc. — as tools, they make sense. To a person with hypersensitivities, these tools drown out bad sensory stimuli and comfort the person, enabling them to focus and function."
"Some days are worse than others. No matter what tools had been provided for me, there would have been some days where coping was too difficult. If teachers would have allowed me to step out of the classroom for a brief break when I felt overloaded, I could have pulled myself together and re-entered the classroom stronger and ready to start again."