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A Highly Sensitive Child’s Unitive Sensory Experience

A Highly Sensitive Child’s Unitive Sensory Experience

Understanding the nature of a highly sensitive child’s sensory experience is crucial, yet not necessarily easy, as what is sensed may not be obvious. Their ability to read subtleties implies that highly sensitive children are holistic and empathic thinkers. One of the most common distinctions in the literature on cognitive style is between analytic and holistic styles. Analytic thinking involves understanding a system by thinking about its parts and how they work together to produce larger-scale effects. Holistic thinking involves understanding a system by sensing its large-scale patterns and reacting to them. A holistic person does not tear things apart mentally, to understand them. Instead, the holistic person tends to approach a subject by trying to understand its gist or general meaning. Their ability to get a general feeling about a situation may open their minds to subtle nuances of complex situations (Dewey)[i].

Analytical thinkers may focus on what a person says to understand how they feel, a process regulated by cultural and social norm, but holistic thinkers operate differently. They are also empathetic thinkers, understanding happens by reading the subtlety of another person’s energy and body language to gage their emotions. This process seems intuitive and bypasses cultural and social norms of communication. When a holistic thinker is unaware of this distinction, he/she may not be able to reconcile this intuitive reading with the dominant cultural and social analytical communication conventions and, confused by the disjunction between what is said and what is felt or seen, become out of sorts. On the other hand, if aware of this difference in process, he or she can begin to use this understanding and respond in a language appropriate for the specific social/cultural group and context.

As holistic thinkers, highly sensitive children development process can be quite different from other children. While the assumption is that we all follow the same development path, the beginning point should be helping children preserve their “unitive” skills, their “present-centered” flow of awareness with ease.

While in ego-centered theories, such as Loevinger’s (1976)[ii] theory of ego development, such a skill is the highest level of ego development, for them it is the first. These children’s unitive level is paradoxically synchronic with first levels of personality, the Pre-conventional development, which is marked by low impulse control and fear of punishment.  Self-Aware, stage 5 of development, is the modal stage of development desired. As an individual moves from Pre-conventional development towards conventional development they need to understand personal differences and, with age, become more tolerant in order to achieve Self-Awareness.  There lays another challenge, addressing high levels of development in certain areas within a highly sensitive child’s mind that is still, in many aspects, in its infancy. The more heightened their unitive skills are, the more asynchronic their development may be in other areas. A potentially very confusing situation when faced with school that requires all children to mature in the same areas at a similar rate and a medical culture that is based on synchronic developments and a normative approach to what is health.

Because of their holistic and empathic perceptions, the boundaries of highly sensitive children’s self are not confined to their body, rather they are defined by their position in space. Hence, we must think of their being in a different way, one that is influenced by the hidden dimension of the environment. But how a child will react to environmental and other types of stimuli will vary. Responses will depend on the type of personality the child has.

Integral theory can help understand what needs to be considered through its notion of types. These are the variety of consistent styles that arise in various domains and occur irrespective of developmental levels. We can think of types as the different particularity traits highly sensitive children can have; those who are introverted, those who are extroverted, those who get over-stimulated, those who get under-stimulated, those who are sensory seekers, and those who are sensory defenders. All these children have heightened sensory processing capacities, this regardless of the type of stimuli they are reacting to; but they bring their unique styles to their responses to stimuli. Types have expressions in all four quadrants (see Figure below).

Figure 6: Illustrations of Types

This illustration of types designed by Sean Esbjörn-Hargens allows incorporating the various dimensions related to personality we explored in chapter 3. Internally, an individual has a specific personality type and also a gender type. In general, individuals have access to both masculine and feminine qualities and thus tend to have a unique combination of traits associated with each type. Externally, each child has a blood type (A, B, AB, O) and a body type (ectomorph, endomorph, mesomorph) these two types can be presumed to influence the chemical and sensorial reactions of a child to the world. In terms of external environment, each child exists in a specific ecological biome types (e.g., steppe, tundra, islands) and may have specific environmental sensorial needs(needing cold or hot temperatures, a certain type of natural stimuli, etc) and governmental regime types (e.g., communist, democracy, dictatorship, monarchy, republic) or social rules which regulate the nature of sensory experiences that are acceptable . Internally, a child is influenced by a collective type of religious system that influence his/her understanding of reality as well as the meaning of sensory experiences, and different types of kinship systems (e.g., Eskimo, Hawaiian, Iroquois, Omaha, Sudanese), the later regulates the genetic make up of that child as well as cultural norms and potentially regulate his/her nutrition needs.

Types are stable and do not change, by becoming more aware of them and their role in a child’s sensory health, we are able to infuse sustainability into our efforts by tailoring them to the unique patterns of a child. For instance, considering introversion and extroversion can help us to shape what would be an appropriate sensory experience for a child.

It is also important to recognize that there are many types of experiences that influence a child (figure below) and each have its own sensorial dimensions. While the list is not exhaustive, it may help a parent begin to observe during which of these experiences a child changes behavior. Some of the most obvious are physical (bodily and biological) experiences, but in addition, there are mental (emotional and cognitive), social, spatial, temporal and mediated experiences. All are informed by specific senses.

Helping highly sensitive children does not only entail focusing solely on their person. Given their heightened empathy, it is important to consider the sensory quality of their social experiences, taking a deep look at our family lives, and cultural contexts, and given their heightened sensory capacities, to also examine the physical environments they live in, for potential toxic experiences. A particularly important aspect of experience to explore are familial ties as they can often hide high level of stress for a highly sensitive child.


Previous: Experience of the Environment: Child, Family, Community and the world.

Next : Family Experiences

Work Cited

[i] Dewey. “Cognitive Styles”. Introduction to psychology. http://www.intropsych.com/ch07_cognition/analytic_vs_holistic_thinking.html

[ii] Loevinger, J. (1976). Ego development. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.



  1. Pingback: Family Experiences | The Highly Sensitive Family - February 16, 2015

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