Sensory Processing Disorder is one of the reasons we homeschool. My kids have struggled with having a sensory system that worked differently from birth. We’ve accommodated them for preschool and elementary school, but those needs don’t magically go away at a certain age. Teens and adults can all have needs that require adjustments due to SPD. We’ve talked about what kinds of accommodations the kids needed in their early years. Now let’s talk about how my strategies changed as they became teenagers.
When my teens were tiny, we limited how many things we did each day, or how many days of the week we scheduled activities. As teens, they have learned to do this for themselves and to be active in managing their own needs. To friends, they say they are introverted and need more downtime to recharge. That is language that is more commonly accepted than discussing SPD. And it is true. My highly sensitive child really does need alone time to recharge.
For several years, we attended a co-op one day a week where my kids took several classes. We made sure that most weeks the day before co-op day was a quiet day at home so that my teens didn’t start class already exhausted. The day after was also a recharge day with few activities. Learning to schedule for themselves is a process, but there is nothing wrong with recognizing a need and meeting it for yourself. We are not all extroverts who want company every day. Learning your own need for downtime and how to accommodate that is important.
Finding the Right Coping Techniques For Themselves
There is a stereotype that teens are all on their phones and wearing headphones so they can ignore everyone all the time. It is OK to let your teen lean into that. Using a phone game is a great way to self-soothe and cope with anxiety or feeling overwhelmed. Listening to music or dulling the ambient noise in a crowd by wearing headphones is also helpful. No, I don’t like it when I realize my teen has heard nothing I said to them because of those headphones, but I accept that this is a way they are able to manage their own sensory needs. It is important to me that they learn to manage those needs for themselves before they reach adulthood.
There are also tons of fidget toys that can be useful for managing sensory needs. Today, you can find rings, jewelry, key chains, and other adult-appropriate fidgets. However, tweens and teens can still enjoy putty and small toys too. It just depends on your child what the best fidget is for each situation.
Letting Go of the Idea of “Missing Out”
Often, teens with sensory challenges don’t want to attend loud events like dances and concerts. They may avoid all the things you loved about your teen years. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to have meaningful experiences. It just means that they want different ones that suit their needs better. Teenagers have ideas about what they want to do with their time, so listen to them and brainstorm what kind of things would interest them.
Would they like to try kayaking? It is a challenge that is quiet and solitary. Outdoor challenges like hiking and camping are great ways for teens to push themselves. These are also great activities to do with small groups which can make it easier to step away and feel alone when needed. These kinds of trips, whether a few hours or a few days, can be done with a friend or parent, or you can vary the group size to meet your child’s desire for companions.
Your teen may also want to set up a game night with one or more friends at home, as a comfortable socialization activity. It doesn’t matter if the games are electronic or board games or something else. The important part is that having friends over may let your child have friends on terms they can handle.
The important part of the “typical teenage experience”, things like prom, parties, and going to ball games, is the people you do them with and the memories you make. Focus on helping your child make memories with those they want to be with, even if it is just you.
Making The Leap From Teen to Adult
The transition from a child to an adult seems long but the end sneaks up on you. The older your child gets, the more they need to learn to manage their sensory needs themselves. Babies need to be held all day. Unfortunately, as adults, we have to figure out a whole lot on our own. Helping your teen find meaningful ways to manage their Sensory Processing Disorder and enjoy life in ways they can be comfortable with will help them be a successful, happy adult.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.