5 Reasons To Go Plastic-Free With Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder

Man holding trash bag with plastic around him on an orange backgroundand environmental concept - man carrying garbage bag on yellow background

Last Updated on

April 30th, 2024 09:26 am

Everyone has that one noise that makes them cringe. But for most neurodivergent people, Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) are often debilitating, especially when these developmental disorders co-exist in the same individual.

Plastic makes life for people suffering from sensory overwhelm difficult. That’s because it’s everywhere, which also makes it difficult to cut out of our lives. But it’s possible to reduce exposure, and not just through occupational therapy. By adopting a sensory diet that allows a reduction in distress, both adults and children can thrive at home and in the work or school environment.

If your loved one is struggling with the sensory issues that come with plastic in our everyday lives, remember they aren’t being awkward. It’s the sensory issues causing them distress that you can ease with some quick and easy steps in our top 5 benefits of plastic-free living with Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder .

What is SPD?

To understand the relationship between plastics and Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD as it’s known, it’s good to understand what goes on in someone with SPD.

Sensory Processing Disorder refers to difficulties in how the brain functions and processes information from the senses. This includes sensory processing issues in touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing, balance, movement, and proprioception. The disorder affects about 1% of all children. And previous studies estimate that up to 50% of those who have autism spectrum disorders have SPD.

There isn’t just one reason why SPD happens. The cause is likely a combination of genetics, environmental factors, and neurological differences. Some research suggests that there may be a link between early childhood trauma, personality disorders, and SPD. But this in fact differs between each individual.

An autistic child with SPD often has great difficulty processing sensory stimuli in everyday life. For example, a hypersensitivity to light and bright lights even causes physical pain. Or auditory stimulation of a loud classroom sets off more behavioural issues as the day goes on. Where people also have a Developmental Coordination Disorder (Dyspraxia), these issues can affect mobility and co-ordination as well.

What are the Three Types of SPD?

There are three Sensory Processing Disorder Types. These are:

Sensory Modulation Disorder

Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD) affects sensory processing across single or multi-sensory systems. The most common form of SMD is called SOR, where people perceive non-painful sensations as painfully intense.

Sensory Discrimination Disorder

People with sensory discrimination disorder feel confusion about the sources of sensations. This can lead to trouble knowing where you are in space, clumsiness, trouble noticing hunger, or difficulty discriminating between letters and the sources of sounds.

Sensory-Based Motor Disorder

Sensory-Based Motor Disorder affects the motor skills. It’s characterized by deficiencies in balance, gross and fine movements, and the ability to execute skilled, familiar, or novel movements caused by sensory processing issues. Two subtypes of Sensory-Based Motor Disorder are Postural Disorder, and the more commonly discussed Dyspraxia. These cause issues with motor skills and often require physical therapy to assist with making life easier to manage.

5 Reasons to Adopt Plastic-Free Living

1. Sounds Trigger Fight-Or-Flight Response in People with Autism Spectrum Disorder

The main factor in triggering misophonia. a common symptom of SPD, is plastic wrapping. The noise of opening a packet of crisps (that’s potato chips to our American readers!) makes millions cringe all over the world, causing a hugely distressing sensory overwhelm to occur. Such sensory symptoms can lead to a lack of social interaction as people with SPD do anything they can to avoid the triggers.

Misophonia, a hatred of loud noises, often co-exists with Autism Spectrum Disorder and attention disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Formerly known as Attention Deficit Disorder). Whether it’s opening a packet of crisps, or polystyrene breaking apart, plastic is not the nicest sound for many Autistic people and can infact trigger mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders.

At home, focus on products around the house to allow for a sensory diet in the home. Background noise becomes more manageable, and it will reduce the chances of distress when Autism and the sensory overwhelm that comes with being overstimulated are doing their thing.

To reduce plastic, try visiting your local fruit and veg shop or a plastic-free online store and ditch the packaging. Also, home refill services help if you would rather stay away from crowded places. These also prevent the agonising crunch of plastic echoing around your house.

Girl covering ears to hide noise

Misophonia, a hatred of noises, is a classic sign of SPD

2. Allergic Reactions Cause Sensitivity to Tactile Stimuli (Touch)

Many children and adults are allergic to plasters. But for many neurodivergent people, it goes beyond sensory overwhelm. Being made to wear a plaster is forceful and irritable, and this triggers tactile defensiveness as a result. But there is an alternative.

Plastic-free plasters are a great way to overcome this double-attack on the senses. These plasters feel different to touch. So even for those with SPD without the allergies, they’re worth considering. They’re also a great addition for the first-aid box if you’re looking at operating a neurodiversity-friendly business.

Of course, plastics and man-made fibers also exist in our everyday clothing and accessories, from wallets to watches. And these too can cause sensitivity. So, look into natural alternatives like hemp, cotton, wool, silk and bamboo.

Woman on stool afraid to touch floor

Adults with SPD are prone to letting an aversion to plastic take over their lives.

3. Textural Properties Affect Behavior in Neurodivergent People

Plastic textures can give extreme emotional reactions in those with SPD. For example, some struggle with the rough bubble-like texture you get on kids outdoor toys. For others, they enjoy how solid plastic feels, but find flexible plastic distressing. Many even find plastics in manufactured clothing may be the cause of behavioral issues, especially in school where children may be permanently distressed.

So, what about soft? Soft plastic doesn’t have the same properties as hard plastic. But, while plastic does tend to be less abrasive than hard plastic, it can cause issues down the line. So for many, avoiding plastic altogether, especially if it’s not made 100% from recycled plastic, is the way forward.

Aside from saving the environment, using a reusable bag such as one made of paper or fabric helps not only your senses but also the environment. Also known as a bag-for-life in some countries, bags like net market bags will save you money in the long run as well. These bags save you the stress of having to hold plastic when shopping is stressful enough as it is!

4. Smells Cause Sensory Overwhelm in Sensory Integration Disorder

A heightened sense of smell is frequent amongst neurodivergent people and is one of the most common symptoms of Sensory Discrimination Disorder, a subtype of SPD, in particular. Much of this comes down to chemicals that also cause taste issues. Anything that comes close to your face such as water bottles or a face mask will trigger multiple sensory processing issues, in particular a reaction to smells. And these show more extreme in those with personality disorders as smells trigger a heightened response.

Of course, depending on the rules in your area, you may be exempt from wearing a face mask. But if you are happy wearing one, swap out your disposable face masks for a plastic-free one. Not only are they more breathable and protect you from viruses better. But they’re also much more breathable.

To neurotypical people or those without a sense of smell, the knee-jerk reactions in anyone who exhibits the ASD-like traits of sensory profiles such as SPD can seem over-reactive. But without the right support and guidance, many of these anxieties end up manifesting themselves in compulsive sensory behaviours and repetitive behaviors.

man holding nose while taking trash out

Smells can be a real problem for anyone with Sensory Processing Disorder!

5. Chemical Treatments Can Make Drinks Taste Bad

It’s not top of everyone’s list, but think about it. Have you ever drank water from a plastic bottle as opposed to a steel bottle? The chemicals in the plastic bottle can cause a change in the taste of the water. While in most countries this is now regulated due to the potential risk factors shown in studies. But it’s still not as nice for those who can tell the difference.

Stop buying plastic bottles and go for a steel bottle. It may seem costly, but it’ll save you money in the long run as you’ll find yourself buying fewer drinks too. Even as a fizzy drink fanatic, use a steel or bamboo water bottle that’s durable and easy to clean. This means you won’t need to drink out of those annoying plastic cups at the water cooler any more.

Further, look into reusable edible or stainless steel straws. They’re easier to clean (or in the case of edible, tasty to eat afterwards!) and don’t leave residue behind. Plus, they’re far more hygienic than plastic ones. If you’re worried about germs, then opt for glass instead. Glass is safer than plastic because it’s non-porous.

Consider Occupational Therapy for Any Child in School

For anyone who struggles with sensory behaviors that come with SPD and its subtypes, ask your healthcare provider about occupational therapy. They can look at a type of occupational therapy called integration therapy that helps reduce the effects of the sensory profile of SPD in a child with Autism.

Sensory Integration Therapy works by helping children learn how to manage their sensory input. Occupational therapy also allows mental health professionals to tackle many disorders side-by-side, allowing therapies that accommodate for everything from Sensory Integration Disorder to Developmental Coordination Disorder.

Occupational therapy such as Sensory Integration Therapy includes things like making sure there’s no clutter around them, ensuring they have access to natural light, and keeping noise levels low. Also, they’ll work on ways to keep their body safe, including learning how to avoid certain situations. And, with occupational therapy, they’re able to teach kids how to make sure they’re getting enough sleep and eating well. All which is important when dealing with mental health conditions such as Anxiety Disorders, as well as neurodevelopmental disorders such as Autism and SPD.

Exposure to sensory stimuli reduces sensory overwhelm and anxious behaviors by regulating the exposure. It’s like traffic lights at a junction. The result is a more organised flow of traffic and there are no accidents. Controlled exposure requires adjustments to environmental factors, so make these changes in everyday life to help make daily life less stressful for everyone and to avoid future compulsive sensory behaviors as a coping mechanism.

Baby in mothers arms smiling at bubbles

A Plastic-Free lifestyle benefits everyone and protects the future for our children

Embrace the Plastic-Free Life

If you’re new to all this, then you’ll now have a better understanding of the problems with plastic on the senses. And in particular, how it can affect people who are neurodivergent. For those who can relate to  the sensory profile, these are the biggest issues with plastic in the home and out in the wider world.

So, if you want to live a plastic-free lifestyle, then adopt that sensory diet, as it’s known. You’ll be doing your part to protect our planet and its inhabitants. But don’t forget that there is more to an improved quality of life than just being green. There’s also being happy. So make sure you enjoy your plastic-free journey!

If you haven’t yet had a formal diagnosis of Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder then you can still use this info. Because the best thing about these changes is that you don’t need a diagnosis to try them and see how you get on!

Keep reading our articles about neurodiversity for more awesome advice!

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Rob Butler
30-Something Millennial with ADHD and suspected Autistic and Dyspraxic. Thought leader behind this website. Big visions of a better future for everyone, but forgets where he is half the time.Loves Rugby, his kids, and anything silly. Hates U2 and Marmite.

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