The Unbearable Sensation of Being: Living With Sensory Processing Disorder

Some Kids Find Everyday Stimuli Excruciating, And Scientists Are Finally Figuring Out Why

mother and infant with sensory processing disorder (SPD)
Illustration by James Yang

Cindy was cradling her 9-month-old son, Elias, against her chest when she and a room full of family simultaneously yelled “Surprise!” to an unsuspecting aunt on her birthday. The outburst shot like a bolt of electricity through Elias. He cried for an hour.

Xander, while growing up in the perpetual sensory assault of Manhattan, had to get off the train any time someone with a guitar entered his subway car to play for small change.

Cal had a more enigmatic reaction to stimuli. His mother, Jennifer, points to the floor-to-ceiling windows in her hilltop living room. Rooftops, forests, and the San Francisco Bay spool out for miles. Cal was 2 when they moved here from a small, contained apartment. “We got here and Cal was always running away from me,” recalls Jennifer. “He suddenly had all this space and stimulation. He was in sensory overload.”

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