Addressing sensory issues: Am I sharing a problem or demanding others to change?


In the previous post I shared how the sensory modulation side of my experience with Sensory Processing Disorder is still a problem. I explained a little bit of how previous efforts to address these problems were met with unhelpful advice, especially since I didn’t have a means of explaining why things bothered me.

Now as an adult, I do have more awareness of why a seemingly random noise can have such a strong impact on me. So why isn’t it easy to tell people?

There’s a threefold reason I have trouble addressing these problems. 1) I’m evaluating the seriousness of the current situation so I don’t always raise the issue in the moment. 2) I struggle with expressing myself in a calm and non-reactionary way that separates the person from the sensory issue. 3) I’m afraid that bringing up issues I haven’t addressed before will be viewed as me being controlling and demanding.

A personal example

It’s really hard, especially around my mom because we’ve been through so much together, for me to calmly explain what’s bothering me in the moment. My gut reaction is anger, and I’m trying to work on that. Yet while I wait for the anger to subside, she notices a grimace or something on my part. In turn she interprets that as me being angry at her on a personal level. In reality, though, it’s some sound or movement in my environment that registers negatively.

Maybe we’re in the car and the steering wheel rubs against her hands as she makes a turn and the contact produces a specific sound. She’s driving the car, she’s not doing anything to purposely annoy me, but for some reason this sound grates on my ears. The equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. I have to brace myself every time she drives knowing I’ll hear this sound and that it will upset me. I have an internal, physical reaction to this sound. But I’m afraid of raising awareness to the issue because it seems stupid. I feel angry at myself for getting upset by something so inconsequential. Why can’t I just ignore it?

And I honestly don’t have a solution to the problem. What am I supposed to do? Ask her to change the way she drives just for me? So it’s one of the sounds and one of many moments that I try to just absorb, but apparently my face betrays me. She notices something in my demeanor or facial expression or eyes. I don’t know what she sees but she notices something and asks what’s wrong. And I can’t allow the words to spill out of my mouth. The explanation doesn’t come. I just say “nothing” or I say “I’m tired, I’m still waking up” and hope for the best. But she doesn’t buy it and to some degree I think she feels there’s something more personal involved. Maybe she thinks I’m mad at her or disagree with whatever she’s just shared.

So, I encounter a sound that bothers me. I don’t address it. I hide and try to shrug it off. Mom interprets my reaction as anger directed at her. And there’s added tension to our relationship. Yes, this is a problem.


Sharing vs. controlling

Clearly the proper solution is that I need to raise awareness to what bothers me. The squeaky wheel is the one that gets the oil, after all. Nothing will be resolved if it’s not shared. Only after talking more openly about some of these problems will people become more aware and maybe more in tune with how I’m reacting. But until then, it’s pointless to think that any clues I offer (which I feel are obvious but are actually quite subtle) will be interpreted correctly.

I’m working to find a way to address problems calmly. Before writing this up, my efforts have included phrasing things like “I get annoyed when you do xyz”, although that’s much more eloquent than it comes off. It has actually been more like “Ugh! Stop doing xyz it’s driving me crazy!” Emotions are high in the delivery, and I’m reacting out of anger instead of explaining things in a calm, even voice. This approach sets things up as a personal attack. I don’t have a problem with the person specifically, but with a sound or movement or touch that was produced. There’s a difference.

My fear with starting to point out these situations is that I will be viewed as being controlling and demanding and seeking only to have people cater to my needs. And I don’t want that. Everyone experiences little things that are annoying or bothersome so what right do I have to demand people change their behavior?

It finally occurred to me that just because I identify a problem, identify that something specifically is bothering me, does not mean that I am demanding something to change. Rather, I’m sharing a problem. I’m sharing a problem and explaining how it is being received, how my senses are interpreting the sound or action. It only becomes a demand when I  insist that something never be done again.

So the first goal of sharing the problem is to raise awareness to specific things that bother me. This will be a means of more fully sharing myself with family and friends. Of bringing problems into the light so it no longer has to remain a secret. To no longer have to keep these moments to myself, pretending that everything is fine while it eats away at me internally.

The secondary goal is to brainstorm ways to reduce the problem, if it’s possible. To find ways of making accommodations that are reasonable.

Sometimes a sensory problem is out of my control and the control of those I’m with. But by identifying that something is wrong, I can invite others to be involved simply by offering compassion, support or silent understanding. Sometimes it’s not about having a solution but being able to share the problem together. Like Nutmeg sitting near Martha while she’s hiding under the hammock.

Back to the car situation. The other day it occurred to me that I could suggest Mom use a steering wheel cover. It would be a small accommodation when I’m in the car, but not a drastic demand of changing the way she drives.

“Just speak up!”

I can’t always control the way things affect me or the way my body interprets my environment, but I can get better at the way I respond and react. And part of that means learning how to calmly explain what’s bothering me.

It’s scary to use my words in that way. There’s still fear for how I’ll be received.

And as I begin this venture of being more vocal, that filtering system I fight all the time with general verbal communication hits hard. Is this a small problem? Is this worth bringing up? Is this a solitary issue or likely to be ongoing? Will I be viewed as trying to be controlling or demanding? Is there an alternative I can suggest? Have I exceeded the “statute of limitations” for the amount of time that has passed before addressing the issue?

The confusing part is that these experiences may annoy me 8 out of 10 times. There’s still a possibility that one instance will go unnoticed or will not register as annoying. It could be my sensory tolerance is higher at that time and I can handle the sound or situation better. I don’t really understand how that works. But what I take from it is that specific sounds and triggers aren’t a guarantee. Which makes it harder to speak up. Just because it annoys me now, is it worth saying something? Is it something that can be or needs to be changed?

I put pressure on myself for how I verbally phrase things and timing that delivery. Some of that care and planning is important. But it can also be a means of avoiding to take action, looking for that perfect approach or opportunity that will never come. So I have to do better at sharing calmly while doing my best with the explanation I have at the time. I can always elaborate later. And part of the acknowledging process needs to include acceptance that I can be brief, offering something simple like: “Bear with me. I’m working through a sensory issue.”


Building on success

One major victory stands out to me. It happened about a year ago. I was walking with a friend on a nature trail. She randomly decided to pick up a large stick and drag it alongside her. For several minutes I evaluated this change in behavior. It made focusing on our conversation more challenging; the sound of the stick being dragged along the rocky ground was distracting.

Finally I asked “Why did you pick up the stick?” It was a passive approach, but it was delivered calmly. There was no anger or accusation in my voice. She said she liked the way it felt in her hand. Then not long after, she followed that with “Does it bother you?”

I felt silly for being bothered by the stick. But she knew of my sensory issues and having taught special needs children, I felt she was more inclined to understand. Maybe I actually said “yes” or maybe I just offered a nod, but to some degree the irritation was communicated.

She offered a compromise: she used it like a walking stick instead of dragging it. We continued on happily.

I was happier with how that problem was resolved. Because normally I would have waited much longer before speaking up, spending so much time weighing and considering if it was worth mentioning that it would no longer be relevant. Yes I waited some time after she picked up the stick, but we were still walking when I brought it up so it counts!

I proved to myself that I could calmly address a situation without being demanding and overly emotional. Being blunt has never been a strong suit for me. And I need to work on improving that. Not that my delivery needs to be callous, but I need to try to be more direct in my communication.


Side note

If you haven’t read my poem “Dispute,” now is a good time to check it out. Initially I thought it was just a good illustration of trying to defend myself in an argument, but another interpretation is showing a reaction to a sensory issue.

The poem shows the speaker turning inward, taking the offending words or sound or action personally. It doesn’t just roll off the back; the impact clings and lingers. It shows the person getting upset with the environment and turning inward, where anger builds but it becomes a challenge to express these emotions.

I do tend to freeze up more when these moments occur, trying to physically brace myself and figure out how to handle the situation. And as an adult I’m recognizing more and more this strong desire to lash out in anger, to allow my boiling thoughts to pour out. While I do end up holding my tongue more often instead of lashing out, which is good, it doesn’t change the fact that the problem remains unacknowledged.

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15 thoughts on “Addressing sensory issues: Am I sharing a problem or demanding others to change?”

  1. I used to struggle with this immensely. Then I realized the faster I mentioned it the less likely I was to have “the tone” in my voice that seemed to make others defensive. As for me “the tone” is me gritting my teeth as I’m on the last bit of self control I have left before the noise, smell, sight, etc causes complete overload. I’ve also found if I bring it up in relation to the sound, smell, sight, etc not the person it is more well received. Such as no saying “please stop making that noise” but instead “that sound is really hard for me, could we please turn it off or change it or move further away, etc”. I also shifted my perspective, such as I used to think I was asking for modifications and what right have I do do that, then I realized, thry are asking me to do the same thing, so why do I feel they have a right to ask or expect me to modify, yet I don’t feel I have the same right? And that helped. I found viewing it that way allowed me to give myself permission to advocate for my own needs faster. And most of the time success can be found quite quickly. Doctors offices and restaurants are the least likely to modify though I’ve found, most likely to dismiss my needs over the needs of some not present potential other patient or patron. That really annoys me. “Could you please turn the music down?” “No, our patrons enjoy it”. Ok I’m a patron, right? I just expressed I wasn’t enjoying it. So why can’t you turn it down? Stuff that like frustrates the heck out of me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for a thorough response! I’m hoping to get to a point where it’s easier to advocate for myself. But right now I’m in the early stages, finally realizing I have a right to do that. Learning how to be assertive. Because you’re right. Others, mostly unknowingly, expect you to make accommodations for them. Why can’t you make a direct request for yourself?

      It takes time. It takes practice. It takes realizing the importance of speaking up and sharing. That not everyone will understand but you have to keep trying.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Absolutely it’s a process. Took me years to get to this stage where I unapologetically advocate for what I need. Years and a lot of therapy. Lol. It’s hard to when it feels counter to what you learned early on. Keep at, it gets easier I find. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  2. This is my experience too with the same sensory issues and they are getting worse unfortunately. I’m slowly learning to self advocate but it is difficult after fifty odd years of considering others more important than myself. Thanks for sharing this 🙂
    I am going to reblog it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing it!

      It’s so incredibly hard to self-advocate. I hate feeling like I’m stepping on other people’s toes. But I have to start standing up for myself. Do some self-care in there too.

      I totally get the feeling like others are more important. But slowly, hopefully, you’ll start seeing more of what you have to share with others and see the value your opinions and input have that others need to hear. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I only recently realized it was a sensory issue. Always was told I was being too sensitive. Internalized it as a bad thing.

    Your post made me realize ways to improve my delivery so others don’t get upset, so thank you. But reading about your situation(s) where I’m a neutral third party also made me realize how the requests for small changes aren’t really that big of a deal. It made me wonder why the heck people get so upset when we ask for things that mean next to nothing to them but so much to us.

    I’m still working through trying to address these things in my own life. Appreciate the glimpse into your life. The perspective is very helpful.


    1. Awesome! Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you found it helpful.

      I often make things into more of a production than they need to be, so small situations escalate into bigger things. It’s something to work on. But that’s part of the process, right? Have to be aware of something before you can make changes.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Self-advocacy is much harder than advocating for someone else. Having an ABI (acquired brain injury) at 62, I have had to learn to advocate for myself. Previously I was easy going and able to let things slide. Unfortunately, when I’m in situations that cause too much sensory loading I need to address the matter. I’m finding out that there are those I have known for years who are very accommodating once I explain my challenge. Unfortunately, there are others who just can’t understand why I ‘suddenly’ am asking them to be more considerate. The hardest people to address are those who tell you that they know what it is like, but don’t really understand and then refuse to change their actions or behaviour.
    Developing effective advocacy skills is a must. Thanks,


    1. It’s so hard! But it’s good to know I’m not alone. Stepping out more into self-advocacy is scary but it’s such an important step. Not only in addressing problems in the moment but in recognizing that my discomfort is worth acknowledging and that it’s ok and worthwhile to seek environment changes.


      1. When I self-advocate I make a distinction between factors in the environment that are considered ‘normal’ sounds and those that arise from socially disruptive behaviours. If it’s socially acceptable behaviour I will try to make my own adjustments. I might make an incidental comment about how the noise is affecting me.
        When someone is being particularly loud, or engaged in activities in an inconsiderate manner I will make an intentional request, asking the person for some consideration. Unfortunately, someone who is doing something socially inappropriate is less likely to respond in a helpful way to my request. The person doing something socially inappropriate is less in tune with themselves and possibly less capable of empathy.

        Liked by 1 person

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