Chapter 3: Sensory abilities are not disabilities
“That which you mistake for madness is but an overacuteness of the senses.” ― Edgar Allan
The elimination of sensory awareness from our language and culture has resulted in their elimination from our medical narratives as well. This has had terrible consequences on the health of highly sensitive children. It has made their sensory reality invisible.
As we saw in the introduction, sensory perception sensitivity (SPS) is now recognized as a personality trait characterized by heightened sensitivity to internal and external stimuli, including social, emotional and environmental ones. However, given that this trait is an invisible minority in society, the needs and traits of highly sensitive children have been ignored and misunderstood. In fact, many behaviors and conditions that are the results of overly stimulated senses are often misdiagnosed as pathologies, becoming labels of illnesses, bad behaviors, diseases or disabilities that need to be cured.
Some medical professionals do question this pathologization of childhood. As Dr. Laney explains:
“ There is a lot of confusion and disagreement about such terms as shyness, social anxieties, high sensitivity, autism and Asperger syndrome, sensory integration dysfunction, dyslexia, and disorders such as ADD and ADHD and other problems that affect children’s lives. (…) Some researchers wonder if these conditions should even be looked at as syndromes or types of dysfunction as opposed to merely the far side of the normal brain continuum.”
The current state of controversy around the misdiagnosis of childhood disorders is alarming. Professionals have a hard time differentiating between giftedness, heightened sensory sensitivity (or a Highly Sensitive Person), ADHD and Autism in children since many of the “symptoms” overlap and we tend to forget that children’s developmental stages are not as normalized as we are led to believe.
One element all these diagnosis have in common is the predominance of sensory processing and/or integration differences, which affect attention. Even more alarming, heightened sensory processing sensitivities are not recognized as a condition on their own. Without a diagnose of “disease” or exceptionality, children and adult who have these heightened senses can not be helped by the medical and other public communities such as schools. And, a misdiagnosis can seriously damage children: As Linda Graham points out:
“ a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder does not result in compassion and understanding. More often than not, children who are diagnosed with ADHD (and their parents) meet attitudes tainted by suspicion and contempt (Carpenter & Austin, 2007). Furthermore, they often experience institutional discrimination and social rejection (see Neophytou, 2004). Recent research in education shows just how debilitating these early years experiences can be to children’s `-esteem and self-worth (Exley, 2005) but also that these are not mediated by medication. Indeed, the child’s “need” for medication serves to reinforce to the child that they are defective and “bad”. And so the spiral begins… but this is also when and where it can be circumvented (Graham, 2007, p. 3)
Are sensory processing abilities another example of a pathologized form of difference? Let’s not forget that our modern western culture and its health system have a tendency of pathologizing difference and oppressing manifestations ways of being it does not approve of or understand. As Maggie Koerth-Baker reminds us:
“Not so long ago, homosexuality was officially considered a mental illness. And in a remarkable bit of societal blindness, the diagnosis of drapetomania was used to explain why black slaves would want to escape to freedom.”
By medicalizing heightened sensory processing capacities, we are potentially repeating the pattern of our past, the institutionalizing of sensory difference echoing the treatment of women and other marginalized groups in previous decades:
“ Like another social movement of that time concerned with the institutionalisation and treatment of those with a mental illness, it raised for me the moral dilemmas of patient’s autonomy, their control over, or at least input into the medication they received, and the broader pursuit of social and economic circumstances which might help them to flourish. The fundamental importance of asking the question why (…) . On a daily basis American children line up in ordinary primary schools for their dose of Ritalin or other medication for ADD.
(…) One of the world’s most eminent child psychiatrists, Sir Michael Rutter, has expressed his concern that for a diagnosis to be useful it must be distinctive from other disorders in its causation, natural progression and treatment. He feels ADHD as currently defined does not satisfy these requirements.”
This criticism alone makes it important to probe sensory processing in children before accepting a diagnosis. Thankfully, slowly, some medical research is beginning to understand that many “disabilities” are simply different ways of perceiving the world, not defects. In the world of the senses what was once considered a sensory processing disorder is now also considered a sensitivity or a gift. Some parents and some medical professionals are warning us that the epidemic of ADHD and Autism diagnoses we are facing should be carefully considered.
Dr. Laney-Olsen, Marti (2005). The Hidden Gifts of the Introvert Child. Workman Publishing Company; 1 edition. P. 10.
Graham, Linda J. (2007) Countering the ADHD epidemic : a question of ethics? Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood,8(2), pp. 166-169.
Koerth-Baker, Maggie (2013). The Not So Hidden Cause behind the ADHD Epidemic. New York Times, October 15, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/20/magazine/the-not-so-hidden-cause-behind-the-adhd-epidemic.html?pagewanted=3&_r=0
 Mann, Anne (2001). “Setting The Frame Of The ADHD Epidemic: Childhood Under the New Capitalism”. Public Seminar, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne. Retrieved from: http://napp.org.au/issues.html