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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 work around 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 his needs. They can discuss what housing can be made to help him adjust.

Your child may also be able to bring some of his own furniture from home. It could help to have a desk or chair he loves for his room. 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 and has the chance to contact that person before the school year starts, encourage him to reach out. 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 with him about what he might expect and what he’s worried about. He can also practice self-talk to reduce his anxiety. And remind him to build in time for sensory diet activities to help him regulate his 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 is food he will eat.

What might help: Suggest your child talk to food services about his dining options. He can ask where else on campus he can eat, what each place serves and the times of day that are least busy. You may also want to send him off to college with a mini-fridge and a stash of his favorite foods so he has things to eat on hand.

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 his professors to explain what he needs. That may include something like allowing him to wear 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 he may have to leave suddenly due to sensory overload. In this case, maybe your child can arrange to listen to a recording of the parts he 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 your child can’t control other people’s mobile settings, he can change his own. This will help him hear his phone over the rest of them.

He can also explain his sensory processing issues to friends and come up with a solution for when they’re all together. And don’t forget to encourage him to invest in a good pair of earbuds or headphones to use as a signal that he needs 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.

If your child is sensitive to taste, he 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: Not all college kids like to drink or party. Your child may need you to assure him of that and encourage him to explore other campus activities.

If he does want to go to parties, make sure he knows how to handle risky situations and that he knows who to contact for help. Practice what to say with him so he knows how to avoid peer pressure. And remind him that nobody will know if he just has soda in his red plastic cup.

Discuss with your child the pros and cons of disclosing his sensory processing issues. Make sure he knows how to self-advocate, and help him practice strategies that have worked for him 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 his 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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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom