Sensory Processing: When You Need To Go Up


So I have a new therapist and I love her. Which means that there are about to be a lot of posts about personal insights coming your direction, because it’s been literally years since I’ve had a therapist who is pushy enough to get me to talk and insightful enough to make suggestions I haven’t heard before. And let me tell you she dropped some insight on me yesterday and it’s only our third session and I was not ready for her to pick up on my needs so dang quickly. This is your regular reminder to get you a therapist that feels right to you, because I have struggled through about five therapists who weren’t right and got nothing, and in 3 hours this lady has done more for me than any of them.

But today we’re not going to be talking about therapists and how awesome they can be. Today we’re going to talk about an element of sensory needs that is so rarely discussed that I work at the autism society and I flipping forgot about it: when you need more sensory energy instead of less. To clarify: I’m not talking about needing more sensory input vs. less sensory input. I’m talking about which direction the input takes your nervous system.

This can be a confusing distinction, so let’s take a couple of steps backward and see if we can work from there. When humans are faced with conflict, our nervous system activates: we hit fight or flight. But some of us have a freeze tendency. We leave our bodies, we dissociate, our energy and adrenaline seem to disappear. On an everyday basis it’s always useful to be balanced between that high energy reactivity which you may need because it activates you to go and do, vs. the calm that keeps you from getting overwhelmed and overstimulated.

We often think about sensory input as a way to bring people down: are you having a meltdown? You may need different sensory input. Are you running and screaming and have too much energy? Maybe you need some deep pressure. We think of the senses as a way to calm people down because it’s much easier to see if someone is dysregulated when they’re highly energized and all over the place.

But sensory input can go the other direction too. It can also bring someone’s energy levels up. The example that we were talking about was my average workday. Therapist asked what I do for self care at work (and I laughed), so we discussed where I tend to be on an anxiety level at work. I tend to be hugely disconnected from my body. I dissociate. I ignore my bodily needs. You know, the usual. What we realized was that I was getting really minimal sensory input of the type that makes my body feel good and capable: the proprioceptive, vestibular, spinny, pressure, bouncy goodness that keeps me awake and connected to my body.

It had literally never occurred to me before that I needed to be more activated at work, since we spend so much time thinking about reducing anxiety, staying calm, bringing our emotions down, etc. But here we were, talking about ways to hype me up. Get that nervous system flaring and energized. It was wild but made so much sense, as my responses always tend towards shutdown rather than meltdown, fatigue rather than insomnia, just falling asleep instead of facing my problems. When I do hit high anxiety or high activation, I know how to respond: I know the breathing techniques, I know the mindfulness, I know the sensory input that helps to calm me down.

What I DIDN’T know was what wakes me up and gets me excited. I didn’t even know that I needed to think about that. I think that this is one of the downfalls of focusing our discussions of autism and sensory processing disorder almost exclusively on children. Kids tend to have more energy than your average adult. It’s rare that I hear discussions of sensory supports that talks about people who fall asleep at the drop of a hat, or people who won’t get out of their chair or move. Those are the folks whose nervous systems are down down down. And I’ve noticed that the older people get, the more likely they are to deal with the fatigue, low energy, no activation style of sensory processing.

In order to deal with the fatigue and low energy, we’ve decided that I need to introduce sensory breaks into my day to get up and walk around, as well as start using a yoga ball for seating at least some of the time (so I can do a bit of the bouncy input).

I think it’s incredibly common that issues like sensory processing disorders get pigeonholed as one thing, and the people who fall on the reverse side get a bit boned. I’m always excited when a therapist points out the quieter side of a spectrum and reminds me to notice those needs.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Emotion Regulation and Self Care


Welcome back to the Emotion Regulation section of our Executive Function series! I hope that you’re not surprised to see the term self care cropping up here, because it’s a very popular concept right now, and I think it’s one that’s often misunderstood so we’re going to dive into how you can use self care concepts to keep your mood in a good place and to manage bad moods.

Self care includes any and all actions that take care of yourself. Duh. Obvious (so many of our emotion regulation things are). But that means it’s not always things that feel good. Self care is all about balance: doing things that will help you feel better in the future because you’re healthy and housed and so on, as well as things that help to fill you up in the moment.

Let’s start with the hard bits of self care. The first thing I’d note on this list is that if you’re going to prioritize self care (which you’ll want to do if you want your emotions to be reasonably stable and not overwhelming), you have to take care of your health. That means making doctors appointments on the regs, getting in to the dentist, going to the grocery store so that you have decent food to eat, getting up and moving around on a regular basis, taking time off when you’re sick, getting vaccines, and so on. This is your long term self care plan.

These are hard things to do. We’ll get into some strategies for how to plan for them as we dive deeper into executive function, but one thing that I want to note is that there’s a kind of chicken and egg situation with executive function: the more you get on top of your ongoing adulting type tasks, the more your emotions will stay up, and the easier it will feel to keep doing those tasks. Even if you can add one of these types of tasks to your regular schedule, it should start building on itself.

I’d recommend having a journal or notebook where you can write down things like your last dentist appointment, your last physical, tracking your sleep, all those basic things that keep your body going strong and keep you from getting behind on important things (like bills, cleaning your home, etc.).

An important element of these types of self care is remembering to say no sometimes. That means saying no to new projects or opportunities when you don’t have time, saying no to fun stuff if you need to get other things done, saying no to people asking you to do things even if you could or you feel obligated. You don’t have to do everything and you can’t do everything. You will be far more capable of “adulting” if you say no some of the optional things in life and dedicate some of that time to managing finance, logistics, and health.

It’s easy enough to say “oh do all the adult things that you’re supposed to do because it will make you feel better” but it’s significantly harder to actually go ahead and figure out how to do those things. Maintaining a house, keeping up on insurance and healthcare and pet visits and car maintenance and when did I get a new IUD last? It’s a lot. We’ll be getting in to some methods for planning and organization later in this series (in fact I’ve got a whole section planned for that), but for now I’m going to give some brief hints that have helped me manage some of these things.

The biggest thing I do is use external scheduling reminders and consistent routines to keep up adult tasks. There are two general types of things that I have to manage: things that are periodic, like getting the oil changed in my car or going to the dentist, or regular things like cleaning the litter boxes or depositing my paycheck. I automate as many of these things as humanly possible (all bills and financial things) which cuts down on quite a bit.

For periodic things, I try to add reminders in multiple places. My phone and my planner are the most common. I also like to set up the next appointment as soon as I do this one, so that I don’t have to remember to make an appointment, just show up (and many if not most places will send you reminders). Consistency is key here. I like to go to the same place every time for something, as that makes it that much easier. We’ll talk more about memory and planners later, but whatever system you end up using, make sure you have the ability to make notes for the future.

The other thing I like to set up is routines! These are great for those regular tasks that always need to get done. Whenever possible I like to include another person in my routine to keep me accountable (this is why my workouts are in a class format), and do a little bit of data collection to find out when I’m most motivated for a given task. I also try not to set expectations too high for myself. Most people consider it disgusting if you don’t clean the litter boxes every day. I do it every three days. But my cats don’t care and I can’t smell it so it’s fine. I keep it realistic because when I make the goal to do it every day I get discouraged and end up doing it less often.

On the other hand, sometimes it feels real frickin’ good to do things that aren’t responsible. I like to schedule at least one day a week during which I do nothing of use. I relax. I drink tea. I eat chocolate. I do the things that let my mind melt. It’s important to have time for just plain old fun and relaxation.

A few notes here: after many years of trying to find the balance of relaxation and work, I’ve come to find that for me it’s a little more complex than that. The indulgent side of self care actually has two components: fun and exciting things that most often happen with friends, and relaxing and quiet things that let my mind and body rest. I need both of these. Spend some time noticing the different needs that you have and figuring out what helps for each one. You may have some self care that looks very traditional (I’m way into baths) and some that doesn’t (self care for me also includes insisting that my weekly Dungeons and Dragons sessions don’t get cancelled too often). You may have to research what self care works for you! There are tons and tons of Googleable lists out there of self care suggestions, so take a look and see what resonates.

A few suggestions: learning a bit about mindfulness is great for some of the relaxation type self care. You may not love it (and that’s ok), but it’s good to have the ability to be somewhat still and learn how to untense your body at least a touch. For those who like meditation or yoga those are great options!

If you are on the autism spectrum or have other sensory processing issues, this is where you want to pay very close attention to your sensory needs. If you’re trying to relax but there’s a fluorescent light that gives you a headache, it’s not going to work. Notice what you’re hyper sensitive to so that you can drown it out when you want your mind to chill out. On the other hand, notice what sensory activities you seek out. My self care goes all off kilter if I don’t get to climb something or swing on something or go whoosh at least a little bit each week. You may be able to incorporate a little bit of self care each day by having a particularly satisfying fidget on your desk.

Speaking of fidgeting, stimming is also something to pay attention to when building your self care routine. If you need to mask your stims while at work or out in public, make sure you’ve got some places to safely and comfortably stim in a way that feels good to you. A space for not pretending is the best self care I know.

Go out and be good to yourselves my friends.