Many people with NVLD face a unique challenge in romantic relationships: how to manage their sensory sensitivity. It is documented that some individuals with NVLD may have either an acute or blunted sense of hearing, taste, smell, or touch (Schatz, 2013). The senses can play a role in all stages of romance, from choosing a venue for a first date to deciding on when and how to touch for the first time. For someone with sensory sensitivity, these aspects of dating may be especially anxiety producing; it may also be more difficult for these individuals to develop a deeper level of physical intimacy as a relationship progresses.
These challenges can be compounded by the fact that individuals with NVLD sometimes struggle to interpret social cues and body language, leading to difficulties knowing when and how to articulate their sensory needs. However, by being clear in expressing one’s needs and boundaries to one’s significant others, individuals with sensory sensitivity can not only help their partners to understand them better, but also create a mutual trust that may ultimately lead to greater physical intimacy.
Finding an appreciative and supportive partner may be essential for some adults with sensory sensitivity. The psychotherapist and blogger Rachel S. Schneider states, “I’ve had the great honor to engage with numerous adults with SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder), and each person has expressed to me how crucial a deep, trusting relationship is to their sense-of-self and well-being in this sometimes haphazard world of shrill sirens, foul smells and socks with intolerable seams” (Schneider, 2015). Although explaining these needs during the dating process may seem like a daunting process, the end result of having a supportive partner who can help the person with sensory sensitivity to navigate the challenges presented in daily life can make the process worthwhile. In general, there are specific steps individuals with NVLD and sensory sensitivity can take to date effectively and deepen their emotional and physical connection with their significant others.
During the initial stages of the dating process, choosing a location for a date that does not involve excessive stimuli is a precautionary step. For example, a quiet café followed by a walk instead of a crowded restaurant in a busy area, or a poetry reading rather than a loud bar can help individuals with sensory sensitivity to avoid overload. Also, knowing one’s boundaries and refraining from extensive touch, as well as articulating boundaries to one’s date may help to avoid any misunderstandings about a perceived lack of physical affection, which can easily be misunderstood as a lack of interest. However, for somebody who may be uncomfortable disclosing his or her sensory needs during the initial stages of the dating process, expressing one’s interest verbally can still help to convey a clear message of attraction; statements such as “I really had a nice time tonight” or “I look forward to seeing you again” can leave a positive impression.
Some people with NVLD and sensory sensitivity may attempt to ignore the flight or fight response that occurs when they experience sensory overload with their partners, but doing so may be unsustainable in the long run. The Elite Daily blogger Daphine Wester states, “The pressure I was under to be ‘normal’ from my partners led to resentment and anxiety on my part. I resented them for pushing something on me that felt unnatural. I felt like I was flawed or deficient for not living up to the norm, and it triggered a strange performance anxiety” (Wester, 2016). Authenticity is an important aspect of a healthy relationship, but for individuals with sensory sensitivity, it is important not only to communicate one’s own needs, but also to recognize a partner’s desire for a physical connection. This can be a delicate but ultimately fulfilling balance, and there are steps toward achieving it.
Compromise is the first step in meeting both partners’ needs, creating a stronger emotional and physical connection. For example, there may still be some aspects of physical touch that they are both comfortable with. Rese Knickerbocker, a blogger with sensory processing disorder, describes how she communicates her needs and desires, stating “I tell my fiancé the best thing to do for me is to give me a big, tight hug where it seems like for anyone else it would be painful, or just not to touch me” (Knickerbocker, 2017). The process of couples communicating, listening, and compromising regarding their sensory needs and desires can ultimately help build physical spontaneity and intimacy in their relationship.
Although sexual expression is an important aspect of a relationship for many couples, it can be especially challenging for people with sensory sensitivity. However, these individuals may still want to enjoy sexual contact, a need that may also be expressed by their partners, especially if the process leading up to it is gradual and sensitive to their boundaries and needs. As with other forms of touch, erotic contact involves exploration, communication, and compromise. Both people should be clear that they would like to engage in this activity and discuss any boundaries they have before doing so, but it is also ok to allow for some experimentation, while requesting feedback about a partner’s comfort and excitement level. Although there may initially be awkward and overwhelming moments, discovering an erotic connection may ultimately create joy for both partners. Other strategies include evaluating and altering external stimuli, including lighting, the fabrics on the bed, outside temperature, etc. Other individuals may enjoy more foreplay, or alternative forms of sexual expression (Kawaii, 2015). While casual encounters may be comfortable or appropriate for some individuals with sensory sensitivity, having a trusting relationship can ultimately help to manage any initial sensory sensitivity, something that may not be easy to discuss during a “hook up.”
Adults with NVLD and sensory sensitivity face unique challenges in enjoying the physical aspects of a relationship, beginning during the initial dating stage and continuing through moments of physical intimacy. By communicating their needs and desires, individuals with sensory sensitivity can engage in romantic and erotic touch with their partners, deepening their emotional connection as well. In fact, a supportive relationship can be an essential tool for helping somebody with sensory sensitivity to navigate daily life, as well as provide that person’s partner with the opportunity to build a sensual, trusting, and caring relationship with someone who will appreciate his or her efforts. With the right steps, people with NVLD and sensory sensitivity can have the relationships they want and deserve.
- Kawaii, A. (2015, June 15). Neurodivergent Sexuality, Part 2. Retrieved from Aegeo Kawaii’s Neurodiversity Blog: Neurodiversity Advocates Human Brain Variety: https://aegyokawaiisneurodiversityblog.wordpress.com/2015/06/13/neurodivergent-sexuality-part-2/
- Knickerbocker, R. (2017, February 23). The Different Ways Sensory Procesing Disorder Affects my Senses Retrieved from the Mighty: https://themighty.com/2017/02/how-sensory-processing-disorder-affects-my-senses
- Schneider, Rachel (2015, March 19th). The Most Valuable Tool I Have as an Adult with Sensory Processing Disorder . Retrieved from the Mighty: https://themighty.com/2015/05/the-most-valuable-tool-i-have-as-an-adult-with-sensory-processing-disorder/
- Schatz, R. (2013). The Role of the Occupational Therapist . In J. Broitman. Jessica & Davis, Treating NVLD in Children:Professional Collaborations for Possitive Outcomes (p. 135). New York: Springer.
- Vercillo, K. (2017, March 8th). Non-Verbal Learning Disorder (NVLD). Retrieved from We Have Kids: https://wehavekids.com/parenting/The-Social-Implications-of-Non-Verbal-Learning-Disorder-NVLD
- Wester, D. (2016, April 7). 4 Boundaries You Must Respect When Dating Someone with Sensory Defensiveness. Retrieved from EliteDaily: https://www.elitedaily.com/life/dating-sensory-defensiveness/1445610
I am a bilingual psychotherapist and executive functioning coach who specializes in working with young adults with NVLD, and I was inspired by my personal experience to help those I work with to transition to the professional and social demands of adult life. I believe that each person is unique, and that we are more than just our labels and diagnosis. I am a Project Social Ambassador for The NVLD Project.Share your own story