Sensory Integration Dysfunction and Mental Disorder

Most of my research in the past has been centered around affective disorders, theories surrounding the causation of dysfunction, and the cognition / behaviors that sustain it. I am broadening my horizons to include many mental health disorders and developmental disorder, particularly autism.

I have had a theory for awhile that hinged almost completely on curious connections I’ve made between bipolar disorder and autism spectrum disorder. Doctors ruminated on the potential for my father and bipolar disorder. By the way my parents describe his mother, it didn’t seem surprising.

We’ve always assumed that my “affective disorder” (assumed Major Depressive Disorder in my teens) was a result of my father. Assumptions are changing around parents house in light of serious mental health symptoms popping up on my mother’s side of the family. My grandmother has “dementia”, politely termed to describe her psychosis. And my aunt who cares for her has developed paranoid delusions. She has isolated herself, because she is sure that the family is “against” her and consorting with one another behind her back.

These things don’t come out of nowhere. They become present after certain events happen, whether they are biochemical or a result of external stressors.

So, why is it that two parents with suspected “affective” disorders bear one child with moderately severe classical autism and another with bipolar disorder? Another generation passes. Two parents, one with an affective disorder and another with a mental health disorder, both with psychotic features, bear a child with mild Autism Spectrum Disorder : Pervasive Development Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified?

I’m not at liberty to speak in detail about my husband’s disorder. I have determined that it is up to him; it is his own business, and it is best for his mental health to know that I am only vaguely referring to it as a “disorder”. I will leave it at that.

We have actually been speaking now, sometimes at great length concerning symptoms, dysfunction, and identifying with one another. Many of these symptoms seem to revolve around sensory disturbances. For me, I’ve gone to great length to describe times of sensory overload caused by a removal of a “sensory filter”. It’s a chicken and the egg conundrum. Does the emotional disturbance make me more susceptible to the sensory integration and processing dysfunction or vice versa?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a great deal of literature on sensory integration dysfunction and mental health disorders. However, there is a wealth of it, as it is considered a component of Autism Spectrum Disorders.

It is thought that the main feature, besides pervasive behaviors, is sensory integration dysfunction / disorder. It is observed that children with ASD fall into categories of sensory “seekers” or “avoiders”. Seekers are thought to have dampeners on sensory imput. Avoiders are opposite and have a sensory overload. But, in most cases, there is usually a combination of the two. Some seeking and some avoidance. Unfortunately, avoidance is considered the most recognized behavior, as it is considered the most dysfunctional.

I can only speak for me. In episodes of hypomania, I become a seeker. One would think there should be an avoidance, but in hypomania, I cannot get enough. My brain eats it at hyperspeed and processes it just as fast.

However, mania is a different story. Often, sensory stimuli overloads an overly active mind. It makes manic symptoms worse. Sometimes, the racing thoughts become fragmented and my thinking becomes disordered. My speech becomes disrupted and incoherent, because the intergation of external stimuli cannot be effectively integrated. And an overload occurs.

In psychotic states, the sensory stimuli becomes confused and distorted. Places and people may become foreign and strange. Hallucinations can occur, distorting sensory stimuli even further. And delusions are fed by misinterpreted stimuli.

Mixed states are the worst. As everyone knows, a mixed state is probably the most unstable a person with bipolar disorder can get. Sensory stimuli is integrated, but poorly. The cognitive associations are often misinterpreted and can spark even worse symptoms.

A sensory overload is common in this state. The internal struggle is enough to shy away from anything stimulating, because of the cognitive inability to process it properly.

I’m still working on interpreting mixed states, the dysfunction, and how I experience it. The problem I face is that many new symptoms I did not expect surfaced at the same time.

Moving to depressive states. I find that I am often very easily overstimulated, though my mental state is dulled. My mind suffers a certain retardation of congitive and physical function. The problem the occurs is the foggy state makes the processing of stimuli difficult. It deepens emotional distress when presented with too much. I simply do not have the processing speed.

So, there are several functions that cause the dysfunction. There are a few facts that remain. I am an auditory avoider when I am unable to process external stimuli due to aggitated or foggy states. I am a tactile seeker in these states, with the explicit exception of psychosis. In (hypo)manic states, I am a motion seeker, as it calms. In depressive states, I am a motion avoider, but a visual seeker. Contrastingly, I am a visual avoider in (hypo)manic and psychotic states.

I could go on from there, but I won’t. I am more inclined to seek input from others. Examine your behaviors of seeking and avoidance. What do you find?

26 thoughts on “Sensory Integration Dysfunction and Mental Disorder

  1. While it is rather obvious that you know much more about what you are saying than I. I’m thinking you are discussing patterned behavior and links within the generations of family that play a part in mental ilness issues. I don’t really have any concrete examples of that in my family but I do think there are componets that are passed down. In my family, there are a lot of symptoms of mental disorders, but no one ever has gotten diagnosed. Every since I can remember, my father has suffered from severe depression. Everyone just looks over it as that is just him. My mother shows extreme signs of OCD and paranoia and even other things, but she has no idea that it is an illness. My fathers mother died due to complications of Alzheimers and my dad has started to show symptoms recently. I have a first cousin who did actually seek out a mental health professional and was diagnosed with Schizophrenia. I’m proud of him for doing that. Now he is on proper medication.
    Pertaining to your situation, it has occured to me that maybe some of the issues in your families may have passed down to you and your husband and even to your son with the Autism. I don’t know very much about Autism so I will not try to comment on it. But it is strange but I have seen mental issues run in families generations down.
    I worry some about my daughter and her husband having children because my daughter has bee diagnosed with BPD and her husband has ADHD and possably Ausburgers syndrome. I may be way of the mark here. But from how I read your post, that is the general idea I thought you were coming from. Forgive me for writing all this if I am way off lol

    • It’s partially concerning the genetic component of it in families, but I am only using that as a reference. What I am getting at is the common thread that runs between disorders, all having to do with neurological disorders, whether it’s ADHD / ADD, ASD, affective disorders, disorders on the schizophrenia spectrum, developmental disorders, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, etc. All and any disorder that do not specifically attack cognition, like MR.

      The common thread is the sensory integration dysfunction, or so goes the theory. Now, I’m not speaking of this as a causation, because then, as I said in the post, we get to the story of the chicken and the egg. What begets what? I’m not sure. But, I do usually have early warning signs that an episode of some kind is coming when my sensory processing changes. And sometimes I don’t. Sometimes, it’s the episode itself that causes the sensory dysfunction and processing errors.

      My son has “sensory needs”, as his occupational therapist calls it. He needs kinetic sensory input, meaning he is constantly in motion. He needs tactile stimulation. Etc. Noisy places bother him, but music is soothing. The way it works is kind of mysterious in terms of what his sensory needs are, whether it’s avoidance or seeking.

      I have noticed it in myself, and I am certainly without ASD. An interesting example would be something I wrote in an email to a friend. When i was just upon a psychotic episode recently, the whole world changed. I had become sensory avoidant, because my sensory input was being distorted. The world was too bright and everything was glossy. Things were higher and bigger and smaller – the world was contorted in ways that the tiny logical part that was left of my brain could see. I described it as such, and I’m paraphrasing, “Imagine having your sensory filter yanked. External stimuli becomes unbearable. Every nerve ending can feel everything, the ache of the muscles, the heat of the sun, and brightness that blinds my eyes. And there is no way to block anything.”

      • that happens to me sometimes. A lot of the time actually. I am really sensitive to external stimuli and I can only take so much of it at a time. Then I have to avoid it altogether after that. Which means isolation. Out in public, peoples cell phones, any sound that is repetitous, just hearing the hillbillies talking about hillbilly stuff will make me want to run out. But if someone greets me personally. I think it is very soothing. But yeah it can make me utterly sick. This is a main reason why I dread having to travel to my daughters for something. So many things will happen that make me almost angry. I really just love beeing at home with the familar noises. The darkness, nothing disturbing. my RD thinks I have ADHD. I am almost tempted to agree.

        • For me, the sensory needs change. Rhythmic noise is always welcome. Music, to me, is rhythmic. It helps focus and calm my mind.

          Now, for other noise. I cannot be in a crowded, noisy place. The noise of so many people talking is too much. There is already a lot of noise in my head. I can’t handle any extra. Especially if I am anxious or depressed. Often, I use music as an escape from the external noise.

          In especially irritable states, it can be nearly anything. Smell is something that comes to light. Normally, I don’t have a good sense of smell. But, when it’s magnified, everything in the world stinks, making me furious. Some people’s voices grate at me, especially when one voice stands out in a crowd.

          I am not fantastic at visually multitasking. I can see print and other visual stimuli simultaneously. But, I cannot handle too much movement around me. Traffic, for instance, is difficult and gives me vertigo. Too much print together can confuse my eyes fairly easily.

          But, I am starved in the sensory areas of touch. Tactile, kinetic, and pressure. I am a sensory seeker. This is difficult, because I am wary of strangers touching me. Well, mostly anyone outside of my family. I fear danger and germs.

          Only in a state of psychosis am I completely sensory avoidant. That’s only because I am keenly aware that sensory information is distorted and unreliable.

          • some times music is soothing. It of course depends on they type of music it is. Folksy music or bluegrass would send me to a hospital lol. I like “Assemblage 23” it takes me away from everything. and Muse does that also. there are exceptions with the rhythmic noises. they mostly cause chaos in my mind, But I have been known to be lulled by a certain sound. For instance growning up, my parents had this old huge fan they put in the hallway at night because we only had a wall unit air conditioner. It made a certain sound over and voer that put me right to sleep. But I usually like it silent. I don’t even leave the TV on.I too have a lot going on in my head constantly, even if there is no stimuli coming from anywhere. That is about all I can handle at a time lol. Im usually busy analysing ever little thing too. In crowds, Some voices I just can’t listen to and especially the voices from people that are apart from the rest it seems, like they are talking extra loud. Plus, I have a huge problem with the education level, vernacular, and interests that these people around here seem so proud of. I need to get past that. But some neighbors could almost send me in a rage. Over all, I like the sound of my family and my animals. They give me no problem. But that confinds me if I only stay where it is comfortable. I know how to manage mind over manner really well.

            • I am comfortable with most forms of music with the exception of metal and hardcore rap. The drilling guitars and heavy bass hurt my ears and drill into my brain.

              Radiohead and bands like it (Muse) have always been my go to when I have the need to block out noise. Which is most of the time.

              I have a phobia of crowds. So, that’s usually when I have a headset on. And that’s why I can’t stand live music either. The roar of the crowd, too many voices, the fear of being trapped, it’s too much.

              There are times, particularly times when I’m in an agitated state, which can include any severe mood, where sound, just regular everyday noise like the TV or the vacuum, are unbearable. Audio multitasking is not done well by me. I will run around the house and turn things off or down. Sometimes, I can hear the hum of lights or the squeal of something (like a fan) that no one else can hear. Those things make me run, hide, and stuff my fingers in my ears. Though muffled, I can still hear it!

              So, these are just some really good examples of how mood episodes affect sensory integration and / or vice versa.

            • I don’t like very much light which most people especially my children do not understand. When they come to visit the first thing that they do is start opening shades and turning on lights. They call me things like vampire and say we have to open up the dungeon ect. But I hate it that my moods are constantly affected while they are here. I mean it isn’t just the light, it is the noise, the intrusion, the destrutction of my routine ect. Thats a terrible thing to feel but I have to say I can only take two or three days .Byt then Im almost gritting my teeth wanting it to stop. But I love for them to come at the same time.

            • I can’t stand a room that’s too dim! My husband likes to live in a cave, but his eyes are good. Mine aren’t. His ears are bad. Mine are too good that all of the sound hurts.

              I guess sensory strengths play into it too.

  2. superb explanation of sensory integration dysfunction, sensory stimulation, seeking and avoiding. I’m going to save this somewhere.

    For me, when I am hypomanic, I crave sensory stimulation…people, places, sights, sounds, touch…it all comes at me so fast and I crave more and more. I’ve realized that it soon turns into overload and much anxiety with heart racing and even dissociation and then I must cocoon myself. I need to go to a really quiet place, shut my eyes to block out all the brilliance, and do meditation to quiet my brain. I recognize the pattern much sooner these days and know it’s unhealthy. One thing I notice when I’m hypomanic, I HAVE to learn EVERYTHING NOW!!! I’ll have several windows open on the internet and be jumping from site to site to site…plus grabbing books to verify and learn more. Or I’ll have a burst of energy and start cleaning the house and be in the midst of 10 different projects and then crash without getting any done. The thoughts are coming faster than I can grab on to. I have learned to recognize this, slow down and take one thing at a time even when my mind is telling me something different. It takes supreme discipline and that in itself wears me out.

    When I am depressed, everything is slow as molasses. I can’t process, it takes me repetition for me to understand what I’m even thinking. It’s so hard that I want to hibernate. Even though the world is gray, it’s still too colorful. I want to avoid any people, places, sights, sounds…There again, I must do the opposite after a very short time or I’ll get pulled in deeper. Pull the covers off of myself, get dressed, start something whether it the laundry, dishes, picking up…anything to get a jumpstart.

    I’ve always craved quiet and alone time. In order to stay healthy, I need to honor that in myself. When hypomanic, it’s a bit harder but I take action to slow down just as when depressed it’s harder to get going. I must do the opposite of what my mind is telling me.

    In stability, the world is colorful. My senses are aroused but not hyper-aroused. I can easily determine when I need to speed up or pull back. My thoughts are normal rate, not layered or swirling. I am not in distress at all.

    As far as heredity…both my parents have mental health issues. My mom is bipolar; my dad has major depressive disorder. They have been stable for a long time. Alcoholism us rampant on both sides of the family. I do believe that it’s self medication for mental health issues. I want to explore the heredity connection and get some more history. Just haven’t done it yet.

    • I am much the same. Hypomania makes me want more. Depression means I can process less and I become overwhelmed. Anxiety makes me incredibly avoidant, with the exception of escapist stimuli. And mixed states, well, that’s a problem. It changes.

      And you made a point. I didn’t cover stable states. In stability, I am still easily stimulated in the auditory sense. That explains my affinity for music. But, that’s probably a sensual compensation for my lifelong deficit in sight.

      • I forgot about music. I love all kinds of music but since I learned what triggers and what doesn’t, I can only listen to my relaxation CDs…very limited. Occasionally I’ll try to have the radio on again and after awhile, I just get overwhelmed. I need to gear up to hear my sons’ band. I am able to hang in there with them at whatever bar they are playing at, but even then, the next day I’m “hungover”. It’s just way too much for my brain but I sacrifice occasionally because I DO like their music. The lack of music is even more distressing to me than lack of interaction with friends. I’ve had to sacrifice most of my social relationships at present too due to grad school and the brain power that takes. Plus doing an internship. My internship is at a school three days a week. It takes it all out of me even though I really love it! I get overwhelmed with the fluorescent lighting, the kids, the activity, the extra thinking and talking. By the end of the three days, I’m also “hungover”. Add in any other things like barometric pressure changes, temperature changes, internal hormonal changes (ovulation and menstruation really impact), or upset in the family…yeah…triggers galore. At it’s worst I describe it as being “run over by a truck”. I know that I’m not cut out for such activity. It solidifies my plan to be a one-on-one licensed clinical social worker and do therapy. I’m so much better one-on-one. I get confused when in a group because I hear all the conversations even though I try my darnedest to hang in with the one I’m talking too. Sometimes it’s just impossible so I shake my head, nodding and saying ummm hmmm to look like I’m listening. I’m glad that I am able to exude a sense of peace and calm despite the anxiety that builds up inside sometimes. I’m supremely thankful that I was introduced to mindfulness-based stress reduction, meditation, yoga, and EMDR. All those tools help in my stability maintenance. I still fluctuate but don’t have the wild swings as in the past.

        • It becomes overwhelming at times for me too. Sometimes, especially when I’m in the cafeteria, I stare at the clock and beg the time to move faster so I can get back up to my silent classroom and prep.

          The advantage of working in a school is that they understand and respect people’s differences and personal needs. Some people need more quiet time. Some people need more stimulation. And there are those that go between the two. That’s why I’m given the liberty to choose between quiet activities and loud ones. Advantage of being a music teacher! Hands on or desk work! (Hands on can get noisy and rowdy.)

          I couldn’t handle retail work. Too noisy. I couldn’t handle desk work. Too limiting. And both demanded things out of me that I couldn’t consistently give. I couldn’t be on the phone all day. I couldn’t be on my feet all day. And I couldn’t sit down all day either.

          Part of that is my kinetic needs. I don’t have a consistent need there. Sometimes, in hypomania, and as I’ve recently experienced, especially mania, I have to be moving. If I’m not moving, the energy has nowhere to go, and can tend to become nervous energy. But, if I’m depressed, I can easily overexert myself. Especially in severe bouts of atypical depression (leaden limbs).

          I don’t know how these sensory needs differ for others. But, it has become clear to me that people have them. I have to wonder if this is across the board or only specific to Dxs?

  3. Oh boy, what a mouthful that was. I understand all of the above. I have had it all in the past two years, but have felt strangely nice and sparkly. Was never like this years ago. I find many people still have symptoms despite medication. I cannot go into any of it as I am on sensory overload. Anxiety has ramped up and am unable to properly verbally communicate again.

    • Hey thanks! I really wanted to collect some opinion and experience with this sort of thing. It’s well known that psychosis has a sensory dysfunction component. But, what about affective disorders? What about developmental disorders and learning disorders?

  4. “times of sensory overload caused by a removal of a “sensory filter”” <– That pretty much sums it up for me. Even with my hearing loss, I feel things are TOO LOUD sometimes, like I focus too much on every little thing I can hear (god, it's no wonder I never wear my hearing aides). Then there's over stimulation and its numbing effect on me or it's adverse, intense feeling that cannot be brought down to baseline easily.

    • I also read an interesting study about musicians with hearing loss, how we “hear” more than our other hard of hearing counterparts. It’s so strange. haha. I wish I would’ve saved that article.

      • That’s really interesting. Since I was a child, my sight has been terrible. As a result, my depth perception and my peripheral vision were bad. My depth perception is still bad, and I actually have trouble navigating long flights of stairs. However, after contacts, my peripheral vision has become amazing. I can only glance over my shoulder and know what’s behind me when I’m in very focused states.

    • I struggle with similar things. When I’m anxious, every physical ailment, whether it’s itching or just a cramp in my toe, well, it becomes unbearable. Not in a painful way. Just in a way that I not only notice it, but I obsess. I’ve been found to scratch “itches” and have a penchant for “picking”.

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