Sensory Issues Aren’t “Dramatic,” Contrary to What Adults Told Us

I am one of those Millennials who didn’t get diagnosed with a sensory disorder until I was in my thirties. Like many people our age, we grew up in a culture that thought every sensory complaint was little more than an attempt to inconvenience or annoy the surrounding adults.

Although my parents were always very attuned to my sensory issues, the other adults in my life weren’t. Teachers and caregivers often grew impatient when my tag bothered the back of my neck, the inside of my sweater got itchy, or the tights under my skirt began to fall down in the crotch and drive me crazy. I was told I was being fussy, difficult, or dramatic. Often, I was told that whatever I was feeling “didn’t actually feel like that” and I needed to get over it.

These days, as a parent myself, I take my kids’ sensory issues very seriously. As it turns out, many of us Millennials are healing ourselves through the act of caring for our kids’ sensory needs. It mends something within us to validate our kids’ feelings in this regard, and to do whatever it takes to make them feel comfortable.

This includes things like:

Removing tags from t-shirts

Turning socks inside out

Not serving foods with textures they don’t like

Letting kids have shaggy hair when gel bothers them

Letting them wash or wipe their hands whenever they want

Giving them headphones when the noise is overwhelming

Letting them be in a general state of undress when they’re at home

These are things that the adults in our orbit didn’t take time to do for us. Or, if they did, they made sure to make us feel like a burden because of it. I can remember one particular sticking point for me was wanting to wash my hands when there were weird textures on them. If I was, for example, using paint in art class and wanted to wash my hands when paint began to dry on them, teachers would tell me there was no sense in washing because I’d just get more paint on me as I worked. I could only wash my hands at the end.

And while I understand their dilemma—it would be a lot of chaos and disorganization if every student was getting up multiple times during an art lesson to wash their hands—it caused a lot of discomfort for me. Even as an adult, I can’t cook anything that requires getting ingredients on my hands (especially sticky ones like bread dough) without washing dozens of times throughout the process.

Now that my children are old enough to cook with me, I have one child who needs to do the hand-washing thing, and one who doesn’t. Both are valid. We take hand-washing breaks when we need them and don’t make a fuss over it. It just is what it is.

I’m so glad that parents from our generation are practicing patience and compassion toward our kids with sensory issues. I think the collective wounds of having our sensory needs ignored have stuck with us, and rather than being angry or jaded, we’re simply choosing to do something about it. We are making life the tiniest bit easier for our sensory-kiddos, and I believe the world will be a better place because of it.

After all, empathy starts at home.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

Check out her blog called Compassionate Feminism on Psychology Today to join a feminist conversation centered in openness, empathy, and equity.

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