Chapter 5: In Search of a Sensory Health Model
Time is timeless and knowledge priceless if you believe you are the breath of life versus the embodiment of life. – Cindy Blackstock
Highly sensitive children are often healthy. Unfortunately, in our modern world, their ability to notice subtle changes in the environment can trigger major sensory stress. As we saw in chapter 4, the world that we have created can provoke many negative reactions and affect their behaviors in profound ways. As many researchers have demonstrated in the last decade, the body is a sensory system, which take inputs from our surroundings that are then processed and reacted to via chemical, physical and social behaviors. Food, chemicals and other sensory inputs affect our hormonal balances, our nervous and other systems much more than previously believed. In a world full of toxicity, these reactions are the healthy responses of a sensitive sensory system.
Our Cartesian cultural understanding of the senses has created such a separation between the mind and body that we no longer understand that sensory processing differences exist and these gifts get misdiagnosed as disabilities. The senses are the connection between the body and the mind but the notion of sensory processing that prevails in modern medicine is still based on a disembodied idea of medicine that separates the body from the mind, attributing their treatment to distinct fields, medicine for the body and psychiatry for the mind (Goffman, 1961)[i]. This explains why OTs and other medical specialists continuously define heightened sensory processing as disorders. Our lack of appreciation for the role the senses play in our health, has led to heightened sensory processing been categorized as a disability.
Unfortunately, sensory processing sensitivities cannot be acknowledged without some sort of medical diagnostic, three predominate: gifted, adhd or autism. In the modern health system, an adhd diagnostic (and potentially soon autism) tends to lead to drug intake to reduce what are considered deficiencies, without an attempt at eliminating the cause. These diagnostics are only a few of the many that incorporate a sensory processing issue. According to occupational therapists Joan Vertes, from the Sick Children hospital in Toronto, 5%–15% of kindergarten-age children demonstrated sensory modulation difficulties (in survey of 702 Kindergarten children, Ahn, Miller, Milberger & McIntosh, 2004)[ii]. Interestingly, this statistic corresponds to the estimated 20% of highly sensitive people that exist in our adult population. Researchers have also found that 80%–90% of children with autism spectrum disorders showed atypical sensory responsivity (Lane & Schaaf, 2010)[iii] and that 40-88% in children with other diagnoses have co-morbid SPD. The list of diagnostics that include a sensory processing imbalance is quite diverse.
According to Joan Vertes, the following populations are somehow affected by an “imbalanced” sensory processing system: ADHD, Global Developmental Delays, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorders, Learning Disabilities, Developmental Coordination Disorder, Varied Syndromes, Cerebral Palsy, Anxiety Disorders, Visually impaired, Hearing impaired, Gifted, Head injury, Prematurity, Institutionalized children, Drug dependent children (Vertes, 2014)[iv].
This is an alarming phenomenon. How can sensory processing imbalances not be examined more closely when it is clearly affecting so many children? Occupational Therapy is the medical field that examines the senses. According to Ayres, one of the pioneer in this field of research, sensory processing imbalances can be addressed by engagement in individually tailored activities, rich in the needed sensory stimuli, will improve the ability of the brain and nervous system to process sensory information, enhance the organization and integration of sensation, and, as a result, have a positive impact on the child’s ability to participate in daily life activities (Ayres, 1972[v], 1979[vi]).
This suggests that reintroducing sensory stimuli in the environment is key to sensory health. What if we change our lens, and begin to understand that the negative sensory reactions of children is due to a toxic environment, perhaps we could begin a process of healing that changes the surroundings to help the natural sensory system of these children to recalibrate itself.
In my family’s experience, modern doctors rarely make the connection between sensory stress and a child’s digestive and behavioral problems. In the case of my children, modern medicine approaches to health have been a disaster and my children have often had to suffer the dire consequence of doctors’ ignorance about HSP health. For example, my youngest son has been exposed to antibiotics for conditions that I now understand did not warrant it as they caused by anxieties from sensory processing stresses. In the process, his intensely sensitive digestive system has been greatly compromised which has in turn affected his mental health.
Part of the difficulty in dealing with sensory processing issues is that we all exist on a unique sensory spectrum and the causes of reactions are going to vary for each individual. Some of us need higher level of stimulations in some senses and fuller disengagement in others. For instance, my family is a blend of introverts and extroverts. The introverts need mental, social and sensory rest to feel well. They hyper-focus and social life is a distraction that is often painful as silence is important to their wellbeing. They shut out input when it is too intense and eventually get angry when overwhelmed. They turn off the communication system to not feel what others feel. The extroverts on the other hand, are wanderers who require much more sensory stimuli, a lot of emotional and physical interactions with others and the world in order to feel complete. That being said, they also get over-stimulated by certain inputs and under stimulated in many situations and often need to control a situation to feel safe. When they get overwhelmed or underwhelmed, they need to act it out, letting out the energies they need to eliminate. They increase the volume of their communication system to demonstrate what they feel but they also run away from over-stimulation.
This sensorial specificity of each person makes it difficult to abide by any medical “norm” of what is healthy. As I found in our lives, it is empowering people to become self-aware of their senses, to understand how to take care of themselves and advocate for their own unique needs that is key. This has certainly been the case for my family. I had to do my own research and learn to listen to my children by observing them in order to be able to help them. Only understanding our family history and specificities made it possible to create a health system that worked for each individual. This is important in today’s world, where many of us are hybrids, whose genetic make up is highly varied and incorporates the traits of many ethnicities. For some, this renders the use of mass produced medical treatments, medical knowledge and some nutritional routes ineffective. For instance, my sons, like me, possess Chinese blood, yet physically we look like Northern and Southern white Europeans. This became important in our lives when dealing with my children food sensitivities. They seem to thrive on an Asian diet. My second child can not be given medications as his reactions end up being often more severe than the condition he is being treated for. In other words, modern medicine is toxic to him. His body just cannot cope and his immune system decreases to the point where he will become sick for a few months. This greatly affects his moods, and mental capacities. His system is not only highly sensitive but also complex to understand. He often reacts in the opposite way of what is expected from a medication.
He is not the only one, Elizabeth Kenny in a TEDMED 2014 talks describes her horrifying experience with the medical system. Over a period of 18 months she was put on series of anti-depressants, anti-anxieties and other drugs, which poisoned her towards great mental distress[vii]. Some people simply do not react well to these treatments, and this is even more so for highly sensitive children.
Thankfully, our understanding of health is changing and slowly a more holistic vision of what influences health is emerging. The social health model of the disability rights movement has influenced modern medicine. This model emerged as a reaction to the dominant medical model of disability that saw the body as a machine to be fixed in order to conform to normative values (Paley, 2002)[viii]. This model allowed to identify systemic barriers, negative attitudes and exclusion by society (purposely or inadvertently) and to acknowledge that society is the main contributory factor in “disabling” people. In parallel, the introduction of the biopsychosocial model has established a “mind–body connection” into modern medicine. Health is now best understood in terms of a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors rather than purely in biological terms (Santrock, 2007)[ix]. Folk health culture has also influenced our notion of health, and the idea that our environment influences our health is being accepted. For instance, the recovery approach to mental disorder has begun the deinstitutionalization of mental health and resulted in more individuals living in the community.
Gradually, modern medicine is acknowledging the idea that the environment is an important part of our health but until behaviors caused by high sensitivity are addressed as signals of a toxic environment, not a defective child or person, sensory processing sensitivities will continue to be stigmatized as a disability. This is an unfortunate reductionist approach to what we are, given the vast knowledge existing in other cultures regarding highly sensitive senses. As Cindy Blackstock tells us, it is a rather myopic vision of what we are (Blackstone, 2009, p. 5)[x] and other cultures recognize that western thoughts have segmented knowledge, a process that has eliminated our ability to see obvious connections with one another with little tolerance for a plurality of perspectives (Lather, 2000)[xi].
In my research, I have found that other cultures have embraced high sensitivities as gifts to be developed and include sensorial life in their health models. Until the Europeans and British colonization efforts, many systems created their health system around the senses. As a European who did not grow up with access to indigenous culture, I have been amazed to discover the wealth of knowledge and wisdom our ancestors had. The chasm between how modern and traditional (or ancient) medicine deal with the mind-body connection is astonishing. But a sad reality is that our modern paradigms have infiltrated many traditional cultures and unless we help those fighting to keep alive their cultural roots, we are at risk to lose many of the knowledge we need to thrive.
By exploring how other cultures look at health, I discovered that traditional medicine models are plurality by nature. Historically, both American and Asian aboriginal cultures emerged out of Siberia, which is the source of shamanistic knowledge. The various cultures that emerged out of this animist tradition are quite varied but they have in common to consider the environment as key to health. These oldest health systems were built on the notion of “difference” as being the norm and identity as being deeply rooted in our world and experiences. They address the idea that we are each unique individuals with unique health needs and the notion that people must take on a high level of responsibility for their health and wellbeing and that of their family. Another important part of this knowledge is not only related to the importance of genealogy, but also to our social life, as we will see in this chapter.
[i] Goffman, Erving (1961). Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. Anchor Books.
[ii] Ahn, R. R., Miller, L. J., Milberger, S., & McIntosh, D. N. (2004). Prevalence of parents’ perceptions of sensory pro- cessing disorders among kindergarten children. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 58, 287–293.
[iii] Lane, S. J., & Schaaf, R. C. (2010). Examining the neuroscience evidence for sensory-driven neuroplasticity: Implications for sensory-based occupational therapy for children and adolescents. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 64, 375–390. doi: 10.5014/ajot.2010.09069
[iv] Joan Vertes (2014). Sensory Processing & Self Regulation. Using knowledge of sensory and motor development to assist in interpreting and managing children’s behaviour. Presentation to the Grove Community School. Toronto. March 2014.
[v] Ayres, A. Jean (1972). Sensory integration and Learning Disorders. Los Angeles, CA: WPS.
[vi] Ayres, A.J. (1979). Sensory Integration and the Child. Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.
[viii] Paley, John (1 October 2002). “The Cartesian melodrama in nursing”. Nursing Philosophy 3 (3): 189–192.
[ix] Santrock, J. W. (2007). A Topical Approach to Human Life-span Development (3rd ed.). St. Louis, MO: McGraw-Hill.
[xi] Lather, P. (2006). Paradigm proliferation as a good thing to think with: teaching research in education as a wild profusion. International journal of qualitative studies in education, 19(1), 535-57.