6 college challenges for kids with sensory processing issues

By Amanda Morin

At a glance

  • College presents a whole new set of sensory challenges for young adults.

  • Dorm life, eating in a cafeteria, and taking classes in lecture halls can all lead to sensory overload.

  • Requesting a single room or a quiet dorm is one strategy that could help your child.

Sensory processing issues can make it hard for kids to manage everyday tasks. For school-age kids, this may include things like self-regulation and classroom-related challenges.

As young adults head off to college, they face a new set of sensory processing challenges. The good news is that with some preparation, there are ways to get over these hurdles so they don’t stand in the way of success.

Here are college challenges for young adults with sensory processing issues, and things students can do that may help.

Challenge 1: Dorms and roommates

Why it’s hard: Young adults with sensory processing issues may be under- or oversensitive to sensory input. And there’s a lot of sensory information that comes with living in a dorm and with a roommate.

For instance, if your child is sensitive to smell, sharing a bathroom with other people can be tough. The different types of soaps, deodorants, and perfumes can be overwhelming.

Some young adults may also have trouble getting used to the feel of different furniture in a dorm room. They could be overwhelmed by the bustle of noise and visual stimuli that may come with dorm life. And having a roommate can feel like an invasion of personal space.

What might help: Many schools allow students to request a single room if they have a reason that would make living with a roommate tough. Some schools also have “quiet dorms,” which have a somewhat less boisterous atmosphere than other buildings. It’s a good idea for your child to talk to the housing department and the disability services center about specific needs. They can discuss what housing can be made.

Your child may also be able to bring some of furniture from home. It could help to have a familiar desk or chair. Doing things like showering when the bathroom isn’t busy or using earplugs when studying can also make dorm life more manageable.

If your child does end up having a roommate, getting in touch with one another ahead of time is a good idea. This way they can talk through concerns together. For instance, they can figure out what they’re each bringing, so the space doesn’t get too cluttered.

Challenge 2: Changes in routine

Why it’s hard: Change can be hard for young adults with sensory processing issues. It can be tough for them to think flexibly and get used to college emotionally and physically. A new routine means getting used to a new space, which can be difficult for young adults with proprioceptive issues. It can make them feel “off” and cause anxiety.

What might help: Encourage your child to take time to prepare for and build up to the new routine. Talk together about what to expect and anything that’s creating worries. Kids can also practice self-talk to reduce their anxiety. It’s a good idea for kids to build in time for sensory diet activities to help them regulate their sensory system.

Challenge 3: The cafeteria

Why it’s hard: A cafeteria can be an assault on all sensory fronts. It’s noisy and crowded. It may have bright lights and lots of food smells all mixed together. And for young adults with aversions to or preferences for certain types of food, there’s the added worry of making sure there’s something that looks good to eat.

What might help: Suggest your child talk to food services about dining options. Can students eat in different places on campus? What does each place serve and which times of day are least busy? Kids may also want to bring a mini-fridge and a stash of favorite foods to their dorm room.

Challenge 4: Lecture halls

Why it’s hard: Many college classes are held in large lecture halls. These rooms may have fluorescent lights that flicker and buzz in ways that bother a student with sensory issues. Also, the desks in lecture halls may feel “tight.” And some young adults may have trouble filtering out distracting sounds from other students or from the room next door.

What might help: The college disability services center may be able to help come up with a plan for accommodations. You may also want to encourage your child to sign up for smaller sections of a class.

Regardless, your child will have to speak with professors to explain any needs. That may include something like wearing sunglasses, earplugs, or headphones in class. It may mean choosing a seat in the front of the class, close to an exit, or in the back of the room. Your child can explain to the professor that it may be necessary to leave suddenly due to sensory overload. In this case, maybe your child can arrange to listen to a recording of anything that was missed, or borrow notes from a classmate.

Challenge 5: Multiple mobile devices

Why it’s hard: Being around more young adults means being around more mobile devices. For some kids, this may not be an issue. For others, the competing sounds of alerts, music, and ringtones can be overwhelming. Others young adults may be bothered by the way it feels when multiple phones are vibrating on desks or cafeteria tables.

What might help: While kids can’t control other people’s mobile settings, they can change their own. This will help them hear their own phone over the rest of them.

Kids can also explain sensory processing issues to friends and come up with a solution for when they’re all together. And don’t forget to encourage your teen to invest in a pair of earbuds or headphones. Using them can signal “I need some space.”

Challenge 6: Parties and drinking

Why it’s hard: It’s already hard for young adults with sensory issues to handle a noisy and crowded place. Add alcohol to the mix and it can be even harder.

Kids who are sensitive to taste may not even like to drink. But drinking alcohol also changes people’s sensory perception. For someone who has issues with interoception or sensory perception, drinking can be a bad idea.

What might help: . It’s important for kids to know that not all college kids like to drink or party. There are plenty of students who keep busy and make friends while exploring other campus activities.

If kids do want to go to parties, it’s important that they know how to handle risky situations and who to contact for help. Planning ahead of time what to say in different situations helps kids avoid peer pressure. And remind your child that nobody will know who just has plain soda in their red plastic cup.

Discuss with your child the pros and cons of disclosing sensory processing issues. Make sure your child knows how to self-advocate. And help your child practice strategies that have worked in the past. With your guidance, your child can find the right tools that help clear a path to success at college.

Key takeaways

  • Encourage your child to talk to the housing office about any needs.

  • Using earplugs in crowded places can help your child cope with noise sensitivity.

  • Avoiding the busiest times in the cafeteria can also help your child feel less overwhelmed.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days. 

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Keri Wilmot is an occupational therapist who works with children of varying ages and abilities in all areas of pediatrics.