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Sensory Issues In Neurodiverse Couples

Sensory issues are a common challenge that neurodiverse or mixed-neurotype couples face. They arise from the way our brains perceive and process sensory input from the environment. For example, certain sounds, textures, smells or visual stimuli become overwhelming or distressing to you or your partner. This may happen consistently, each time you are exposed to such stimuli, or it can take you by surprise. Exposure to overwhelming sensory inputs can lead to worsened mood, low energy levels and poor mental health overall.

What does neurodiversity have to do with sensory issues?

Neurodiversity refers to the natural variation in how people think, learn, and process information. This variation can include differences in sensory processing, such as sensitivity to light, sound, touch, taste, and smell. In a mixed-neurotype relationship, one partner is neurotypical (having typical neurological development) while the other partner is neurodivergent (having atypical neurological development, such as autism, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, etc.). You each have very different thresholds/sensory profiles - and it's not anyone's fault. Being neurodivergent more often than not comes with sensitivity to strong stimuli.

How do sensory issues show up in day-to-day life?

Someone with autism may have heightened sensitivity to stimuli, while someone with ADHD may struggle to filter out distractions. These differences in sensory processing can affect how individuals experience the world around them and interact with others, including their romantic partners.

In a neurodiverse relationship, one partner may have sensory issues that the other partner does not fully understand or appreciate. For instance, a person that is sensitive to loud noises might find the idea of going to a concert or a busy restaurant absolutely terrifying and overwhelming while their partner may feel perfectly comfortable in these environments. This can lead to frustration, tension, and conflict. The partners end up feeling resentful: 'Why do you drag me to these events if you know I hate them so much?' Or, 'You don't care about me, you won't even take me out on a date, you just want to hide at home!' Chronic misunderstanding and invalidation take hold of your relationship.

And then, intimacy suffers

Sensory issues also frequently affect intimacy and physical touch in a relationship. If you are hypersensitive to touch you will probably find certain types of physical contact painful or overwhelming, while your partner is craving more affection and intimacy than you are comfortable with. This will often lead to an emotionally painful disconnect. You will likely take rejection very personally as you will assume there is something wrong with you if your partner doesn't want your touch. You may even question whether your relationship is sustainable. You might be jealous of other couples engaging in PDA.

What can you do about these sensory differences?

Recognizing and understanding each other's sensory needs and preferences will go a long way towards neurodiverse couples finding ways to accommodate and support each other.

  1. Communication is Key: Take the time to sit down with your partner and discuss your sensory sensitivities. Share what triggers you, how it makes you feel, and what you need from them in those moments. Basically, express your needs and boundaries. Encourage your partner to do the same. Understanding each other's perspectives can go a long way in building empathy and respect.

  2. Create Safe Spaces: Designate certain areas in your home as "sensory-safe zones" where both of you can retreat when feeling overwhelmed. These spaces should be free from triggers and equipped with comforting items like weighted blankets, noise-canceling headphones, or dim lighting. Having a designated space to decompress can help prevent meltdowns and provide a sense of security.

  3. Develop Coping Strategies: Work together to develop coping strategies for dealing with sensory overload. Experiment with different techniques such as deep breathing exercises, grounding techniques, or sensory-friendly activities like listening to calming music or taking a nature walk. Having a toolbox of coping mechanisms can empower both of you to navigate challenging situations more effectively.

  4. Practice Patience and Empathy: Remember that navigating sensory issues in a neurodiverse relationship is a learning process for both partners. Be patient with each other and practice empathy. Try to understand that your partner's reactions are not personal attacks but rather manifestations of their neurology. By approaching each other with compassion and understanding, you can strengthen your bond and overcome obstacles together.

  5. Grieve The Loss: It is natural to be sad that you are missing out on some aspects of relationships that two neurotypical people would have. It is ok to mourn. Over time, the grief will lessen and you will focus more on finding your own unique ways to connection and bonding.

  6. Seek Professional Support: If you find that you're struggling to manage sensory issues in your relationship, don't hesitate to seek professional support. A therapist who specializes in neurodiverse couples counseling can provide valuable guidance and tools to help you navigate challenges more efficiently.

It's important for neurodiverse couples to approach their sensory differences with empathy, respect and a willingness to learn and adapt. By working together, they can create a more fulfilling and harmonious relationship that honors their unique differences.

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