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Sensory Processing Disorder

5 Tips for Cultivating a Sensory Lens

Personal Perspective: Sensory insights for self-care.

Key points

  • A sensory lens clarifies the impact of our environment on our emotional, social, and psychological health.
  • Understanding sensory sensitivities informs how we engage with the world and advocate for our needs.
  • Sensory overload differs from anxiety and needs distinct care.

Discovering my autism and ADHD later in life gave me an unexpected gift: the ability to develop what I call a "sensory lens." Before my diagnosis, I faced undeniable truths:

  • Venturing down the laundry aisle at the grocery store was a surefire way to invite a migraine.
  • Chemical-laden products, including deodorants and cleaners, were banned from my house.
  • I tended to dislike people who wore strong perfumes and colognes.
  • A glance at my spouse's color-contrasting striped shirt could make me nauseous and trigger a headache.

These were my truths, yet if you had asked me about sensory sensitivities, I would have met you with a blank stare, unsure of what you meant. And I certainly didn't understand how these sensory experiences impacted my emotions, nervous system, or energy levels.

The Revelation of Sensory Sensitivities

The truth about living in our own skin is that we are intimately familiar only with our personal experiences, often mistaking them for universal truths. Learning about sensory sensitivities has truly opened my eyes, illuminating how sensory overload intertwines with my emotions and physical discomforts. This knowledge has been crucial in helping me recognize the early signs of sensory overload, differentiate it from anxiety, and find ways to comfort myself.

This newfound understanding has emerged as a priceless gem of wisdom, one of the most valuable insights my thirties have offered.

Furthermore, this knowledge has transformed me into a more empathetic therapist and parent. For those who are neurodivergent or care for someone who is, developing a sensory lens is essential for providing thoughtful care and understanding. This is particularly critical, given the high prevalence of atypical sensory processing in autism, affecting between 69 to 93% of autistic individuals. [1] Likewise, emerging research highlights notable sensory processing differences in those with ADHD. [2]

What Is a Sensory Lens?

A sensory lens lets us discern how our surroundings impact our nervous system and shape our emotions, thoughts, and actions. With this lens, we become investigators in our own lives, noticing how the spaces we move through and the routines we adhere to exert their subtle—or not-so-subtle—influences upon us. With a sensory lens, we gain the clarity to perceive and interpret the complex web of sensory stimuli that shape our daily experiences. It encourages us to pause and ask:

  • "How might this experience affect me or others sensually? How might it stretch or soothe my senses or those around me?"
  • "Are there hidden sensory demands embedded in this task?"
  • "What in my environment is soothing, and what may be causing stress?"

Cultivating a sensory lens helps us distinguish the reality of sensory overload from its mislabeling as "too emotional" or "sensitive." In a society that often downplays sensory experiences, overlooking these cues can lead to misinterpretations of someone’s sensory struggles as mere emotional reactions. By refining our sensory lens, we enhance our understanding and become more aware of the sensory demands we may inadvertently impose on others, such as the implicit challenges involved in an invitation to meet for coffee or dine at a restaurant.

Cultivating a Sensory Lens: Five Practices to Cultivate a Sensory Lens

Navigating life with a sensory lens is an essential skill, especially for neurotypical parents of children with sensory differences and for neurodivergent individuals who might have tuned out their body's signals as a way to cope. By embracing a sensory-informed view, we empower ourselves to advocate more effectively for our own well-being and for those we care about.

Enhancing this lens involves specific, deliberate practices that can transform how we interact with our environment and understand our internal states. If you’re eager to develop this skill, here are five practices that have been transformative in my life, and could be in yours as well:

Neurodivergent Insights / Dr. Neff
Infographic of cultivating a sensory lens
Neurodivergent Insights / Dr. Neff
  1. Sensory Checklists: These are useful tools. They offer a starting point to understand your sensory preferences. You can find these through a simple online search, or I provide several sensory checklists on my website Neurodivergent Insights to help you identify sensory triggers, preferences, and soothers. Occupational therapists and sensory-aware psychologists also offer checklists and assessments to help you identify your sensory profile.
  2. Sensory Journal: Keep a record—digital or paper—of sensory experiences. Note what triggers a negative sensory response and what provides comfort. This can be especially enlightening and helpful in understanding one's sensory landscape. Just a few days of noting these details can sharpen your ability to detect sensory experiences.
  3. Mindful Body Check-ins: For those who have difficulty recognizing their body's signals, known as interoception challenges, setting reminders for mindful sensory check-ins can be helpful. This practice helps build a stronger connection with your sensory needs and responses.
  4. Seek External Observations: It's often enlightening to ask those close to you to share their observations of your behavior in different settings. For instance, my spouse pointed out how I would become withdrawn and tense in grocery stores. I had always found such environments overwhelming, but I hadn't fully grasped the extent of their impact on me without his perspective. The insights of those around us can be instrumental in connecting the dots of our sensory experiences, guiding us like detectives to uncover the hidden irritants that affect us.
  5. Embrace Sensory Exploration: This is, quite possibly, my top recommendation! Dive into sensory play. Post-diagnosis, I allowed myself the freedom to explore and discover what truly brought me comfort. I gathered an array of fidgets, stim toys, weighted blankets, and cozy clothes. I gave myself permission to find solace in repetitive movement and to experiment with sensory inputs, like listening to music through a single earbud while navigating public spaces or even when being interviewed! It's a journey of playful trial and error to unearth the sensations that bring comfort and joy to your everyday life.

Embracing a sensory lens deepens our understanding and self-care, empowering us to advocate effectively for our well-being and for those we care about. By recognizing and addressing our sensory needs, we establish a foundation for strong self-care and self-advocacy. Clearly articulating and advocating for your sensory needs not only empowers you personally but also improves your capacity to build deeper connections with others and effectively champion the needs of your children.


[1]Normansell-Mossa, K. M., Top, D. N., Jr, Russell, N., Freeston, M., Rodgers, J., & South, M. (2021). Sensory Sensitivity and Intolerance of Uncertainty Influence Anxiety in Autistic Adults. Frontiers in psychology, 12, 731753.

[2] Lane, S. J., & Reynolds, S. (2019). Sensory over-responsivity as an added dimension in ADHD. Frontiers in integrative neuroscience, 13, 40.

Shimizu, V. T., Bueno, O. F., & Miranda, M. C. (2014). Sensory processing abilities of children with ADHD. Brazilian journal of physical therapy, 18(4), 343–352.

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