The highly sensitive family: How to thrive in a toxic world.
To my children, my greatest teachers.
If you are reading this, you are probably looking for information to help a child who does not “fit” in or is out of synch. A child that is different, and who modern doctors do not know how to help. You may be faced with a diagnosis of ADHD or autism, and feel that these diagnoses somehow do not correspond to what your child is experiencing because you have noticed that your child’s behavior changes for the better when he or she is in a “safe”, quieter environment. If that is the case, you may likely have a child with sensory processing disorder (SPD) or what is referred to, in the more positive light of highly sensitive people, as sensory processing sensitivities. If that is the case have hope, you are not alone.
I am the parent of two children who have and still experience behavioral and emotional issues related to heightened sensory processing capacities and I when we began out journey in the world of sensory processing, I found very little help from the medical community. I turned to the Internet and sensory processing communities for answers. As a result I began this blog to collect the material I found.
What is Heightened Sensory Processing?
Heightened sensory processing refers to different response than normal stimuli from the environment. It can affect people in only one sense–for example, just touch or just sight or movement–or affect multiple senses. Sensory processing disorder is key not only to autism but as I found out ADHD, giftedness and many learning disabilities.
Children with different sensory processing are often misdiagnosed as having ADHD or autism since their sensory overload or under-load can translate into behaviors that are difficult to manage in a variety of social settings such as the classroom, home or new environments. Children affected by sensory processing issues behave differently because they are experiencing sensory and social stress.
While few of us have heard of this phenomenon, it is a wide spread phenomena. In the article “Breakthrough Study Reveals Biological Basis for Sensory Processing Disorders in Kids”, it is explained that:
“ Sensory processing disorders are more prevalent in children than autism and as common as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, yet the condition receives far less attention partly because it’s never been recognized as a distinct disease.
Children with SPD struggle with how to process stimulation, which can cause a wide range of symptoms including hypersensitivity to sound, sight and touch, poor fine motor skills and easy distractibility. Some SPD children cannot tolerate the sound of a vacuum, while others can’t hold a pencil or struggle with social interaction. Furthermore, a sound that one day is an irritant can the next day be sought out. The disease can be baffling for parents and has been a source of much controversy for clinicians, according to the researchers.”[i]
Sensory processing differences are very real, and as many other cultures have understood for millennia, represent a distinct form of intelligence. It is important to understand that the differences in perceptions of these children do not stop at physical senses, they also understanding social life differently as they tend to possess heighted empathy.
But the world of children with heightened sensory processing abilities is difficult to deal with as we live in a time of great doubt in regards to SPD. First, the medical community denies its existence, researchers such as those from the University of California San Francisco, have recently confirmed that it is real but also began to pin point its affect on the brain (UCSF, 2013). In this process, they have established that it affects a different part of the brain than Autism and ADHD.
As MD Elysa Marco explains, most people don’t know how to support these kids because they don’t fall into a traditional clinical medical group:
“Sometimes they are called the ‘out of sync’ kids. Their language is good, but they seem to have trouble with just about everything else, especially emotional regulation and distraction. In the real world, they’re just less able to process information efficiently, and they get left out and bullied”.[ii]
Another difficulty is that there is always a lot of confusion surrounding sensory processing, and, as is explained in the article “Decoding Sensory Processing Disorder”, many different diagnoses fall under the phrase sensory processing disorder. Among them are three specific subcategories:
“Sensory Over-responsivity: In this category, children respond very strongly to minimal stimuli. They often avoid touching or being touched. They often react strongly to certain textures of clothing or food. In addition, they will get overexcited with too much to look at or with strong smells or sound.
Sensory Under-responsivity: In contrast to children who are over-responsive, children with this form of SPD often pay little or no attention to the sensory experiences around them. They are unaware of messy hands, face, or clothes. They will also fail to notice how things feel and will often drop them. When presented with new stimuli, they will ignore them – even if a food is extra spicy or a noise is particularly loud.
Sensory Seeking: Children who are sensory seeking are exactly that – always looking for new sensations. They dump toys and rummage purposelessly, chew on shirt cuffs, and rub against walls. They welcome loud noises, seek strong odors, and prefer spicy or hot foods.
While children who fall into the categories described above exhibit widely (and sometimes opposite characteristics), they are all classified as possessing a sensory processing disorder. It’s often confusing!”[iii]
These characteristics can correspond to behaviors often associated with Autism and/or ADHD, yet, if the sensory processing issues are addressed and the children learn to be aware of their differences, they can learn to self-regulate and stop behaving in peculiar ways.
[i] Bunim, Juliana (2013). Breakthrough Study Reveals Biological Basis for Sensory Processing Disorders in Kids, University of California San Francisco, https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2013/07/107316/breakthrough-study-reveals-biological-basis-sensory-processing-disorders-kidsi
[ii] Bunim, Juliana (2013). Breakthrough Study Reveals Biological Basis for Sensory Processing Disorders in Kids, University of California San Francisco, https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2013/07/107316/breakthrough-study-reveals-biological-basis-sensory-processing-disorders-kidsi