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Roots of Attention Overexitability

Roots of Attention Overexitability

Such preoccupations seem particularly important at a time when an ADHD diagnose immediately calls upon the use of medication. If these drugs can help children operate quietly in the existing social and cultural constructions of our world, in the case of highly sensitive children and any type of gifted child, they are preventing the child from developing a healthy relationship to their heightened sensory abilities. In addition, there are real dangers in taking these drugs for highly sensitive children as they need to learn to recognize the bodily and mental signs that signals inappropriate toxic levels of stimulation that affect their attention.

Let’s have a look at some of the research on what affects attention as it may offer powerful alternative to the use of drugs on young and offer parents with other avenues to explore to help their children regain a more balance attention.

Nutrition and Attention

Nutrition is an important part of a healthy brain. And most of us are unaware of the way in which our nutrition affects our mood. Dr Hilary Jones wrote in the article: “ Your food influences your mood: The second brain residing in our stomachs” that a shocking 45% of us suffer food intolerance. Food intolerance is a much more common problem than food allergy and one of the most harmful symptoms can be low mood and many know that mood can significantly improve after altering a diet.[1]

I have certainly witnessed this with my children. The changes may seem subtle to an untrained eye but once you make that connection, a lot of behaviors can be lessened simply by making sure some food are restricted and that their diet is high in greens and fats. For instance, wheat and dairies make one of my children aggressive. Gluten and egg will depress my other child and he loses the ability to narrow focus, making him seem inattentive.

Researchers now believe that gastrointestinal disorders may be linked to both autism and ADHD. Recent studies have shown that there are beneficial effects of Enzyme Based Therapy not just for Autism Spectrum Disorders but also for ADHD/ADD.

According to AUDI’s (the Autism Network for Dietary Intervention) website:

“In a study conducted by Dr. Timothy Buie, a pediatric gastroenterologist from Harvard/Mass General hospital, forty-six patients between the ages of 5 and 31 were selected for inclusion in a study based on a diagnosis placing them in the category of the autism spectrum disorders, ADD and ADHD. Their diets were supplemented with a dietary enzyme formulation. The results: The enzyme formula beneficially and safely affected all thirteen of the parameter measured. Improvements ranged from 50-90% depending on the parameters measured. The enzyme was effective at improving the symptoms such as socialization, hyperactivity, attention, eye contact, comprehension and compulsions.”[2]

Malabsorbing nutrients can lead to mental health issues. Researchers also now know that our gut contains some 100 million neurons (nerve cells), more than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system, or in a cat’s brain. These neurons, which line the digestive system do much more than just handle digestion or cause nervous feelings. Our gut partly determines our mental state and plays key roles in certain diseases throughout the body. 90% of serotonin, the brain’s ‘happy hormone’ is produced in the gut. By tackling unidentified food intolerances, not only will physical symptoms benefit, mental health symptoms can often show significant improvement. And the way we process serotonin influences our ability for social happiness and more or less response to stress.

In the article “Think Twice: How the Gut’s “Second Brain” Influences Mood and Well-Being”, Adam Hadhazy explains how serotonin seeping from the second brain might even play some part in autism, the developmental disorder often first noticed in early childhood. Gershon has discovered that the same genes involved in synapse formation between neurons in the brain are involved in the alimentary synapse formation. “If these genes are affected in autism,” he says, “it could explain why so many kids with autism have GI motor abnormalities” in addition to elevated levels of gut-produced serotonin in their blood”. (Scientific American, 2010)[3]

When unbalanced, the chemical body can alter a child’s attention, sensory processing abilities and mood. But food is not the only potential root of “inattention” that can lead to a misdiagnosis. Sensory processing, emotional instability and other environmental triggers can also create serious attention problems in a child.

Attention and Emotional Instability

The ability of a child to pay attention and behave calming depends in part on how this child responds to his or her environment. It could be that children who are hyperactive or inattentive do not have A.D.D. or ADHD but rather are anxious or depressed due to any number of family, school or other problems.

Emotional instability is known to lessen attention abilities in children and any form of trauma change the chemical body and, as a consequence, attention abilities as well.

According to researcher Victoria Tennant, research on traumatized children by Dr. Bruce Perry, Provincial Medical Director of Children’s Health, found a greater concentration of brain cell growth in the mid-brain (emotions, survival) at the expense of the prefrontal cortex area (higher level thinking). There is an underdeveloped capacity for empathy (also regulated by the prefrontal cortex). Perry found a tendency for traumatized children to be overly sensitive to cues of perceived threat, creating a ‘quick trigger’ for survival behaviors. As a result, these children have a predisposition to impulsive, aggressive behaviors or withdrawal and depression:

  • “Inescapable stress lowers serotonin (a calming neurotransmitter). Low levels of serotonin are linked to aggression, obsessive compulsive behavior and depression. Low serotonin leaves a person overwhelmed with life until ultimately the system shuts down with depression or explodes with aggression” (Bailey, Conscious Discipline, 2001, p.47).

  • Research has found that neurons in the brain of a chronically stressed individual may have fewer and shorter dendrites (pathways for sending information). This deficiency impairs communication with other dendrites, reducing the brain’s ability to process information effectively (Allen & Klein, p.20).”[4]

Let’s have a look at some of the symptoms associated with trauma in children. According to the National Child Traumatic Network [5]:

“ A child with a complex trauma history may be easily triggered or “set off” and is more likely to react very intensely.  The child may struggle with self-regulation (i.e., knowing how to calm down) and may lack impulse control or the ability to think through consequences before acting.  (…) If a child dissociates often, this will also affect behavior. Such a child may seem “spacey”, detached, distant, or out of touch with reality”[6]

Not only is behavior affected by trauma, so is cognition. Again, according to the National Child Traumatic Network:

“ Children with complex trauma histories may have problems thinking clearly, reasoning, or problem solving. They may be unable to plan ahead, anticipate the future, and act accordingly. When children grow up under conditions of constant threat, all their internal resources go toward survival. When their bodies and minds have learned to be in chronic stress response mode, they may have trouble thinking a problem through calmly and considering multiple alternatives. They may find it hard to acquire new skills or take in new information. They may struggle with sustaining attention or curiosity or be distracted by reactions to trauma reminders. They may show deficits in language development and abstract reasoning skills. Many children who have experienced complex trauma have learning difficulties that may require support in the academic environment.”[7]

Trauma can come from many sources and highly sensitive children can be traumatized by things that do not affect other children as deeply, as we will see In Chapter 4. But a child’s attention can be disrupted by many other causes. Stress is another trigger that can create symptoms similar to those found in an ADHD diagnosis.

In article “Is It Anxiety or ADHD? What you need to know when sorting out symptoms and digging for the right diagnosis for your child”, Larry Silver, MD, explains that:

Frequent symptoms of stress such as low impulse control, difficulty concentrating and irritating behaviors often match the definition of A.D.D./A.D.H.D (Armstrong, The Myth of the A.D.D. Child, 1997, p.28). Understanding a child’s behavior in the context of the brain’s reaction to stress can provide an adult with insight, empathy and expand their behavior management repertoire to include calming strategies.

Behavior is regulated by the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain acts as CEO, the Chief Executive Officer, and controls all higher brain functions such as impulse control, emotional regulation, reasoning, judgment, decision making, planning and problem solving. Research by neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux at New York University, determined that when a threat is perceived, the amygdala “hijacks” the slower responding CEO. This puts the fast-acting survival brain in charge, and momentarily overwhelms rational thought. When our survival brain is in charge, we impulsively react with defensive behaviors. These limited behaviors are primarily shaped by old patterns based on past experiences that have caused pain or fear. When the survival brain is in charge a person may react aggressively, fight, refuse to cooperate, throw a temper tantrum, withdraw, or space-out (Goleman, pp. 17-26). “[8]

Many scientists know that both stress and depression can interfere with brain development. When stressed, children go “blank”. When the classroom is a stressor, a child may spend most of the day in a state of high anxiety:

When we are emotionally upset we say we “just can’t think straight”. This is because unmanaged stress shuts much of the thinking brain down. Accompanying this are heart and brain patterns that create chaos in our brain’s ability to process information.

Many studies have confirmed that both working memory and long-term memory are inhibited by stress. Working memory is a term for the “capacity of attention that holds in mind the facts essential for completing a given task or problem. Stress sabotages the ability of the prefrontal lobe to maintain working memory” (Goleman, p.27). That’s why a stressed adult may have difficulty remembering her address and a stressed child may have difficulty remembering the words on her spelling test. Research has shown that chronically high cortisol levels released during stress can lead to the death of brain cells in the hippocampus (located in the limbic system), which is critical to forming long term memories (Allen & Klein, p.20).”[9]

Attention and the senses: Sensory over and Underload

In the context of the senses, sensory overload is the term used to describe an over excitability of the senses. It occurs when one or more of the body’s senses experiences over-stimulation from the environment. There are many environmental elements that impact an individual. Examples of these elements are urbanization, crowding, noise, mass media, technology, and the explosive growth of information. Sensory overload is commonly associated with Sensory processing disorder.

Here is how a person who experiences such overload describes it:

When in a bright, noisy environment, like a crowded Wal-Mart, the sensory stimulation seems to build up. It is almost like water filling up a bucket. It reaches the top and then spills all over the floor. That is what I feel like, I get swamped by the lights and noise and bustle and then my brain shuts down. Everything seems to come from the end of a long tunnel. I can’t make out sounds, sights barely make any sense. I end up barely aware of anything and am usually only interested in getting away. I need somewhere quiet and familiar. The thoughts that I do remember passing through my head are so illogical and not something that I would even consider doing normally. That is one of my biggest fears that I will act on one of those thoughts when overwhelmed.”[10]

In the case of highly Sensitive people, overstimulation may lead to depression. According to Susan Meidnl:

” feeling overstimulated is an unpleasant and aversive experience. Highly sensitive individuals suffer from overstimulation sooner and more often than many other people and may respond to chronic overstimulation by developing depression”[11].

As Meindl explains in the article “ADD, Stress and Overstimulation – Living Too Close to Edge”, at our personal point of overstimulation, we break down.

“Overstimulation is unpleasant and aversive. We literally experience it as an attack… an attack on out senses, on our emotional equilibrium and on our ability to understand and feel in control of what is happening to us.

When we reach our personal point of overstimulation, we may behave like overtired, overwhelmed children. We can melt down and demand that others take care of us, we can behave badly and coercively of others as we try to control what is coming at us. We may lash out in anger, flee inappropriately or isolate ourselves too rigidly.

Sometimes we collapse physically instead and experience psychosomatic or stress-based ailments. We may become hyper-aware and concerned about bodily pains because they provide an acceptable reason to retreat from unpleasant overstimulation.”[12]

Could it be that any of the unaddressed forms of overstimulation mentioned above can traumatize a highly sensitive child and eventually interfere with his or her Brain Develops?

“UT Dallas researchers recently demonstrated how nerve stimulation paired with specific experiences, such as movements or sounds, can reorganize the brain. This technology could lead to new treatments for autism and other disorders.(…) If subsequent studies confirm the UT Dallas findings, human patients may have access to more efficient therapies that are minimally invasive and avoid long-term use of drugs.”[13]

Conclusion: These Abilities Are Not Disabilities

These various voices suggest to me that indeed, the misdiagnosis of ADHD and autism can be rooted in imbalanced social, sensory, emotional, kinetic and/or chemical stimuli. It seems plausible that some of the children receiving ADHD and/or autism mis-diagnoses are gifted children who are overexcited and with asynchronous developmental abilities, while others are children who have a broad attention focus and cannot cope with our societal reinforcement of narrow focus in learning? Others are potentially children be “sensory and/or emotionally and/or kinetically brilliant”, that when overwhelmed leads to behaviors we are not used to and understand as inappropriate. For some children, the issue could be that they need to be in nature and are instead confined to urban man-made environments suffer from nature sensory deprivation and as a result become hyper-active. Other children are physically under-stimulated and react by moving their bodies to gain sensory stimuli. Some children need to be in nurturing, calm and loving environment but instead find themselves stressed in fast-paced families, with anxious and stressed parents who have no time to help them grow at the rate they need. Others are malnourished and their behaviors mark the lack of proper balance in chemistry. Maybe some of them are out of balanced in all these areas.

We may be more successful in helping these children if we considered that the environment and social settings, within which they are ask to be, can be part of the issue. As a parent, I am becoming very aware that sensory processing issues change as my children are growing up. Many issues are resolving themselves overtime, as long as I provide them with a healthy environmental, sensory, emotional and food diets and reduce toxins that they are exposed. But as important, I also help my children learn whon they are and how to self-recognize over or under stimulation and how to self-regulate their reactions. Once a child has learned to self-regulate and is within the right environment he or she may actually thrive.

The ADHD and autism epidemics mark an important turning point in our societies, an era during which our children’s different abilities are been pathologized as disabilities.   Could it be that when multi sensory intelligence is too intense the children move into autistic or ADHD/ADD behaviors as a means to cope, by shutting down or acting out… Two ends of the same multi sensory spectrum, trying to keep armful toxins out. This begs the question what is toxic to these children?

Previous: Attention and Intelligence


[1]Jones, Hilary (2013). Your food influences your mood: The second brain residing in our stomachs. The independent. http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2013/01/17/your-food-influences-your-mood-the-second-brain-residing-in-our-stomachs/Last updated: Thursday, 17 January 2013 at 4:52 pm

[2]Buie TM (2001). Mass General/Harvard University: GI Study, http://www.autismndi.com/resources/professionals-and-practitioners/mass-general-harvard-university-gi-study.html#.U1-_zsfHtoY.

[3] Hadhazy, Adam (2012).   Think Twice: How the Gut’s “Second Brain” Influences Mood and Well-Being. The emerging and surprising view of how the enteric nervous system in our bellies goes far beyond just processing the food we eat. Scientific American. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gut-second-brain/








[11]Meindl, Susan (2011). Highly Sensitive People and Depression: Overstimulation May Lead to Depression.Ezines Articles. Retrieved from: http://ezinearticles.com/?Highly-Sensitive-People-and-Depression:-Overstimulation-May-Lead-to-Depression.&id=6464996

[12]Meindl, Susan (2009). ADD, Stress and Overstimulation – Living Too Close to Edge. Ezines Articles. Retrieved from: http://EzineArticles.com/4778667




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