Our body acts as a sensory input device that allows us to understand the world. Our theory of mind is informed by sensory experiences. Feeling and thinking happens once these experiences have been processed.
There lies another difficulty to understanding the unique sensory experience of a child. What we understand as being the senses alters significantly our understanding of health and what we understand as the senses is culturally and socially regulated. These influences regulate we can accept as a sensory experience, and, depending on what is acknowledged as a sensory experience, it is more or less accepted as a valid sensory experience and instead considered a pathology. Part of the difficulty is that defining the senses themselves can be controversial.
Besides the five senses we are accustomed to: smell, sight, taste, hearing and touch, the scientific community now acknowledges others. There is an internal sense known as interoception (Craig, 2003)[i]. This refers to “any sense that is normally stimulated from within the body”(Dunn et al, 2010)[ii], for instance, sensing the subtle activities of our organs, blood flow, or energy within the body. According to the article Medical Mystery Surrounding Highly-Sensitive Kids … Solved? (Shelly, 2010)[iii], we have additional kinesthetic senses: the sense of balance and coordinated movement (the vestibular system), and the positioning sense (the proprioceptive system). These senses allow us to know where we are in space and to move effortlessly and smoothly.
Pain is recognized as a sense, and spatial communication specific senses have also been acknowledged: sense of time, and sense of temperature (Ascott, 2010)[iv]. These allow us to sense airborne signatures, such as magnetic or other kinds of energy fields. Personal sensitivity and cultural learning influence how aware we are of these senses. For instance, as we saw earlier, the idea that energy can be felt is not common in the western world. However, energy reading is common in Asian culture and central to asian health and cultural understanding of being.
Some researchers are beginning to demonstrate that empathic and social senses are crucial to human societies (Kovács, Téglás and Endress, 2010)[v] . These are particularly important to how a highly sensitive child perceives the world. For many highly sensitive children, suppressing empathy is unhealthy and can lead to illness, while for neurotypical individuals it allows a further separation between the rational and intuitive self, the later having been pathologized.
If space is filled with hidden fields of energy, people also have an energetic influence on each other. We know that living things produce magnetic fields and we have known for decades that animals have a magnetoception sense[vi], which allows an organism to detect a magnetic field to perceive direction, altitude or location. For the purpose of navigation, magnetoception deals with the detection of the Earth’s magnetic field, it has been observed in bacteria, in invertebrates, and vertebrates including birds, turtles, sharks and stingrays. Yet, Magnetoception in humans is still considered controversial in some scientific circles.
Magnetoreception is hard to study. Quoted in the article “Humans have a magnetic sensor in our eyes, but can we detect magnetic fields?”, researcher Thorsten Ritz says, “Basic things that you do in other senses don’t make sense when it comes to magnetoreception. Almost every other sense is linked to an opening in bone structure – eyes, ears and so on. The magnetic sense could sit anywhere in the body because the magnetic field penetrates the body.” And to complicate matters, we are unsure about what a magnetic sense would be used for.
Nevertheless, some groups of scientists suppose that not only it exists, but that it is central to how we communicate. As early at 1967, scientist knew the heart produces a magnetic field[vii]. In the 1980s, Robin Baker from the University of Manchester carried out a series of experiments, which seemed to show that humans could sense magnetic fields (Baker, 1980)[viii]. His work was disputed but he did establish that we do somehow use magnetic fields.
More recently, Rollin McCraty, Director of Research at the Institute of HeartMath, established that our heart is a sensory organ to a type of bioelectromagnetic communication. The heart, like the brain, generates a powerful electromagnetic field, McCraty explains in article “The heart generates the largest electromagnetic field in the body.”[ix] HeartMath studies show this powerful electromagnetic field can be detected and measured several feet away from a person’s body and between two individuals in close proximity.
In a HeartMath study, “The Electricity of Touch: Detection and Measurement of Cardiac Energy Exchange Between People”[x], researchers set out to determine whether the heart’s electromagnetic field in one individual could be detected and measured in another person when the pair either were seated within about three feet of each other or held hands. The results were positive: The data showed “when people touch or are in proximity, a transference of the electromagnetic energy produced by the heart occurs,”[xi]. The figure below illustrates the heart electromagnetic fields.
Figure 10 Heart Electromagnetic Fields
If we consider the skin as a major sensory organ, the purpose of magnetoreception begins to make more sense. If we consider that the skin senses all subtle forms of energy and can inform our being of what is around us, magneto reception could be the communication tool used to translate this data. While in animals this sense is understood to be a navigational tool, could it be that in humans it also serves to inform of danger emanating from the environment and other beings?
Some researchers, such as Johnjoe McFadden, go as far as to posit that consciousness exist in electromagnetic fields. McFadden’s “Electromagnetic Field Theory of Consciousness”[xii] suggests that consciousness represents a stream of information passing through the brain’s Electromagnetic field. Were this to be ever proven, electromagnetic fields would become recognized as another form of spatial communication as it would suggest that, not only do we generate Em fields, our consciousness is intertwined in these fields.
What the research findings mentioned above suggest, is that there is an invisible communication system that we are not aware of but that does influence us. If we can adapt to the idea that the senses are attuned to spatial communication, E. T. Halls’ model of social space, explored in chapter 5, changes. When this sensory language is a heightened ability, the boundaries of personal space changes for each individual, probably extending its range from a distance of about 12ft to 24 ft.
While these ideas can seem farfetched, for a parent, this can be useful a useful idea in considering what invisible sensorial communication input may be affecting a child. Whether we accept that the senses can be a more complex system of communication than demonstrated at this time may influence our ability to help highly sensitive children.
As researchers continue to study the senses, it is very probable that more senses will be discovered. But if our cultural and social norms do not accept the existence of these senses, experiences associated with a heightened reaction to them could be understood as an illness, or a sign of rebellion when reactions or behaviours do not correspond to what is expected in a given context.
A Fluid Spectrum of Potential Senses
Many scientists and authors have already established the complexity of our multisensory life to be much more elaborate than we think or that scientific data suggest. Guy Murchie, for example, in his book The Seven Mysteries of Life[xiii], enumerated 32 forms of sensing, which he assigned into 5 major categories: the radiation senses; the feeling senses (including proprioception); the chemical senses; the mental senses and the spiritual senses. As he wrote:
“A lot of people seem to think there can be none but the five traditional senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. In a way they are right, I suppose, if you assume that only the ones most obvious to humans are to be included. But surely there are more senses in Heaven and Earth than you or I have dreamed of. And I have increasingly had the feeling that the time has come when someone should pioneer into the subject as a whole with a fresh, untrammeled outlook. So, out of more than idle curiosity, I’ve jotted down a list of all I could think of and it came to 48, not even counting the “stage-in-space sense” previously described. Then, by combining the most closely related ones, I trimmed the number to 32. Of course a lot depends on how one defines a sense, and on arbitrary choices, like whether you decide to lump the sense of warmth and coolness or the sense of dryness and dampness in with the sense of feeling, and whether you want to include the senses (or are they instincts?) that animals, plants and (conceivably) rocks have but most humans evidently don’t.”
Building upon Murchie’s work, others, such as Dr. M. Cohen[xiv] have identified more natural senses. The table below combines the two (the bolded items are Cohen’s contribution).
The Radiation Senses
- Sense of light and sight, including polarized light.
- Sense of seeing without eyes such as heliotropism or the sun sense of plants.
- Sense of color.
- Sense of moods and identities attached to colors.
- Sense of awareness of one’s own visibility or invisibility and consequent camouflaging.
- Sensitivity to radiation other than visible light including radio waves, X rays, etc.
- Sense of Temperature and temperature change.
- Sense of season including ability to insulate, hibernate and winter sleep.
- Electromagnetic sense and polarity which includes the ability to generate current (as in the nervous system and brain waves) or other energies.
The Feeling Senses
- Hearing including resonance, vibrations, sonar and ultrasonic frequencies.
- Awareness of pressure, particularly underground, underwater, and to wind and air.
- Sensitivity to gravity.
- The sense of excretion for waste elimination and protection from enemies.
- Feel, particularly touch on the skin.
- Sense of weight, gravity and balance.
- Space or proximity sense.
- Coriolus sense or awareness of effects of the rotation of the Earth.
- Sense of motion. Body movement sensations and sense of mobility.
The Chemical Senses
19. Smell with and beyond the nose.
20. Taste with and beyond the tongue.
21. Appetite or hunger for food, water and air.
22. Hunting, killing or food obtaining urges.
23. Humidity sense including thirst, evaporation control and the acumen to find water or evade a flood.
24. Hormonal sense, as to pheromones and other chemical stimuli.
The Mental Senses
- Pain, external and internal.
- Mental or spiritual distress.
- Sense of fear, dread of injury, death or attack.
(25-27 are attractions to seek additional natural attractions in order to support and strengthen well-being. Attractions to run for your life.)
- Procreative urges including sex awareness, courting, love, mating, paternity and raising young.
- Sense of play, sport, humor, pleasure and laughter.
- Sense of physical place, navigation senses including detailed awareness of land and seascapes, of the positions of the sun, moon and stars.
- Sense of time and rhythm.
- Sense of electromagnetic fields.
- Sense of weather changes.
- Sense of emotional place, of community, belonging, support, trust and thankfulness.
- Sense of self including friendship, companionship, and power.
- Domineering and territorial sense.
- Colonizing sense including compassion and receptive awareness of one’s fellow creatures, sometimes to the degree of being absorbed into a superorganism.
- Horticultural sense and the ability to cultivate crops, as is done by ants that grow fungus, by fungus who farm algae, or birds that leave food to attract their prey.
- Language and articulation sense, used to express feelings and convey information in every medium from the bees’ dance to human literature.
- Sense of humility, appreciation, ethics.
- Senses of form and design.
- Sense of reason, including memory and the capacity for logic and science.
- Sense of mind and consciousness.
- Intuition or subconscious deduction.
- Aesthetic sense, including creativity and appreciation of beauty, music, literature, form, design and drama.
- Psychic capacity such as foreknowledge, clairvoyance, clairaudience, psychokinesis, astral projection and possibly certain animal instincts and plant sensitivities.
- Sense of biological and astral time, awareness of past, present and future events.
- The capacity to hypnotize other creatures.
- Relaxation and sleep including dreaming, meditation, brain wave awareness.
- Sense of pupation including cocoon building and metamorphosis.
- Sense of excessive stress and capitulation.
- Sense of survival by joining a more established organism.
The Spiritual Senses
53. Spiritual sense, including conscience, capacity for sublime love, ecstasy, a sense of sin, profound sorrow and sacrifice.
54. Sense of unity, of natural attraction aliveness as the singular essence/spirit and source of all our other senses (NNIAAL).
These different approaches to the senses can make our work as parents very difficult. Connecting a sensory sensitivity to a “non” typical sense can make a discussion with health professionals, who do know acknowledge its existence, difficult. Nonetheless, it is important to constantly remind ourselves that how a highly sensitive child process this information is atypical and often defies cultural norms and to be open to explore a sensory spectrum that is not always recognized as real.
Given that a sensory sensitivity can overwhelmed the individual and prevent that person from navigating the other dimensions of beings, a child’s unique sensory processing characteristics must be understood prior to the other elements of health. Similarly to an individual who can not hear or see will have a much different perception of reality than someone who does, children with heightened senses will not interact with the world in a “normalized” fashion but in a sensory fashion.
Thus, our health model includes the senses as a dimension between the environment and how the body is going to react to sensory input. As is shown in the figure below, the environment and identity of a person is filtered through the senses that will convert sensory inputs into sensory messages that the brain processes to engage either the cognitive or emotive aspect of the mind. From these processes a particular perception of reality will arise. If we can understand which sense is involved in the process of overstimulating a highly sensitive child, we can then alter the environment to reduce sensory the overload.
Figure 11 Sensory Experiences
7. kinesthetic: balance and coordinated movement (the vestibular system), and the positioning sense (the proprioceptive system).
Thankfully some research is beginning to document how differently a highly sensitive person processes sensory information. For instance, according to the research of Jagiellowicz and his group, highly sensitive people process visual images in more depth than others. In their case, images are transformed into thoughts about those images when the brain associates the images with input from other senses, as well as with emotional reactions. This research found that when highly sensitive people looked at visual scenes, they showed significantly greater activation in brain areas involved in associating visual input with other input to the brain and with visual attention (i.e., right claustrum; left occipito-temporal; bilateral temporal, medial, and posterior parietal regions). These areas are not simply used for vision itself, but for a deeper processing of input. Such research suggests that what makes some people sensitive is a difference in what is going on at a deep level of processing[xv].
This deeper level of sensory processing can perceive subtle visual information others cannot see such as human emitted light. Researchers have discovered that we are subtle light sources. According to Japanese researchers[xvi], the human body literally glimmers. But the intensity of the light emitted by the body is 1000 times lower than the sensitivity of our naked eyes. Ultraweak photon emission is known as the energy released as light through the changes in energy metabolism. The researchers successfully imaged the diurnal change of this ultraweak photon emission with an improved highly sensitive imaging system using cryogenic charge-coupled device (CCD) camera. The researchers found the body glow rose and fell over the day, with its lowest point at 10 a.m. and its peak at 4 p.m., dropping gradually after that. These findings suggest there is light emission linked to our body clocks, most likely due to how our metabolic rhythms fluctuate over the course of the day.
In addition, other researchers[xvii] have demonstrated the existence of spontaneous and visible light-induced ultraweak photon emission from freshly isolated whole eye, lens, vitreous humor, and retina samples from rats. This research shows that the mammalian eye itself actually emits light – biophotons – which contain energy and information (wave-particle complementary of light), capable of transforming our understanding of one another, and ourselves. A friend of mine can see this subtle light around people and she explained to me that it changes based on their mood. For example, she recognizes anger as having a specific color.
This deeper level of processing is going to greatly influence a highly sensitive child’s sense of reality and behaviour, particularly if the child doesn’t have the language nor understanding to decode this sensory input into a coherent sensory message. When this light emits toxic messages, a highly sensitive child will be affected at much deeper levels than we think and potentially create major stress.
Researchers also know that extraocular light impacts human brain functioning[xviii]. Light also affects cells. A few studies have reported that cells use photons (light) as information carriers and a cellular communication system based on light (Fels, 2009) exists. And this system can affect our body at a cellular level, our mind and our sense of other. Such research is essential in helping understand what is triggering over or understimulation in highly sensitive children. Given their heightened sensory processing capacity, toxic input can affect them at the core of their being, mentally, physically, or at a cellular level, changing their body towards sickness.
Thus helping highly sensitive children does not only entail focusing solely on their person, the quadriatic approach “first-person” perspective. Given their heightened empathy and sensing of subtle energy, it is important to consider the sensory quality of their social experiences and what they perceive from the “second-person” perspective. As we will see next.
Sensory Experiences of Social and Cultural Contexts
Taking a deep look at our family lives, and cultural contexts, and given their heightened sensory capacities, also examining the physical environments they live in, for potential toxic experiences is crucial to understanding the environment that is influencing highly sensitive children’s behaviour. Particularly important aspects of sensory experience to explore are familial experiences, as they can often hide high level of stress for a highly sensitive child.
A type of experience that is crucial yet somewhat invisible is the nature of our social life since highly sensitive people have a stronger activation of brain regions involved in awareness, empathy, and self-other processing (Acevedo et al, 2014)[xix]. Awareness and responsiveness are fundamental features of highly sensitive people. This means that our highly sensitive children will have stronger responses to their experience of the social world than other children.
According to Angie Voss, sensory kids are little emotional sponges and co-regulate via those around them. If you are stressed or upset or angry, the child is sure to feel it, 100 times more than a child without sensory processing challenges.
This empathic awareness and responsiveness is however selective. Aron’s team discovered that highly sensitive individuals process information about close others and positive emotions more thoroughly. The researchers postulate that:
“Perhaps this greater response to close others’ positive emotions explains their unusual susceptibility to positive social environments (Pluess and Belsky 2013)[xx]. Whether learned or innate, individuals with greater SPS appear to be reducing their reactions to negative emotional information that may not be particularly salient, as for strangers versus close others. (…) activation of regions involved in awareness, higher order processing, and action planning suggest that HSPs are attentive and preparing to respond to their partner’s needs when happy or sad.”(Acevedo et al, 2014)[xxi]
This implies that relationships to family members are extremely influential on the well being of highly sensitive children. The first a child is exposed to and that are vital to self-formation are the relationships to the immediate family. One of the hidden sources of distress of our highly sensitive children can be ourselves. Indeed, the source of our children’s problems can come from the harshness of our own emotions, due to economic or social stressors, which are affecting a child’s empathy. As Family Therapist Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D writes:
“Turning to medication when a child is having trouble at school or feeling sad has become as American as apple pie.(…)
Lately, however, an alternative point of view has been gaining more acceptance. This is the notion that family stress — marital problems, financial issues, illness or injury of a parent, and so forth — can be toxic to children and is at the root of many childhood emotional and behavioral problems. Family therapists have been working with this idea for half of century. But now, many people who are not family therapists but who are concerned with the well-being of children are taking this view seriously. Huffington Post writer Lisa Belkin, for example, discussed this topic in a recent Parentlode column.
Instead of viewing a child’s problem as strictly a biological disorder — whether genetic, epigenetic or biochemical — family therapists find that they can help children best by looking at the child’s nurturing environment. A family is a complex system and, as in all complex systems, a change in one part of the system affects the other parts. For example, a few weeks ago, 4-year-old boy Paulie was in my office because his preschool teacher thought he had ADHD. Paulie had had a personality change seemingly overnight. From a sweet well-behaved child, he changed into to a little monster who wouldn’t obey his teacher’s simplest request. When I asked Paulie what was troubling him, he said he was worried about his father because his father had lost his job and cried all day.
Some people may be amazed that a 4-year old child could be so tuned in to his father and have behavior problems because of a father losing his job. To a family therapist, however, this kind of situation is business as usual. We see it every day. “(Wedge, 2011)[xxii]
According to HSP Health, social stresses are common and varied for highly sensitive people. Some more common ones are moving, adding to the family, marriage, divorce, family members having difficulties, heavy social expectations, etc [xxiii]. This suggests that our own self-reflection and self-awareness is essential to our highly sensitive children’s well being. Here lies another difficulty, it is much harder to look at ourselves and deal with our own stressors and toxic behaviours than to look at those of another. Yet, without this work, we may continue to unintentionally harm our children despite medications, therapies, etc.
But social stress is only one of the many types of stress that can affect a highly sensitive child. Besides social lives, the environment must also be considered, the world having a very important influence on a highly sensitive child. According to HSP health, HSPs suffer from typical everyday stresses and some types of stress unique to them due to their different biological makeup. The most common types of stress include: physical stress, emotional stress, mental stress, social stress, process and time stress, cultural, systemic and value stress, elements we will now examine.
Environmental or World Experiences: Space as Powerful Sensory Input
Another important part of the process is to begin to observe within which environment a child is comfortable in and which one he/she is not.
Researchers Nilda Cosco and Robin Moore explain that well-being is a balance between health human processes (psychological, physical, spiritual) and healthy environments (landscapes, weather, built environments, and the social circumstances of daily life) (Cosco and Moore, 2009)[xxiv]. They consider that physical environments and behaviour (physiological response to stimuli) are indissolubly linked and that behaviours can emerge from our interactions with the environment. Their spatial and temporal boundaries are identifiable and their functions are independent of other adjacent ‘eco-behaviours”.
This can explain why highly sensitive children’s behaviours seem unlike other children in certain situations. The sensory input they receive from the environment has a deeper impact on how these children formulate their sense of self, their identity and how they perceive reality.
The differences in the attention a highly sensitive child gives to the processing of sensory information means that experiencing the subtle qualities of the world at large influences his or her well being:
“A number of researchers are finding that children who are highly sensitive and raised in a stressful environment are prone to anxiety and depression, which are the components of neuroticism, and to shyness, which is sometimes the cause of introversion. However, when raised in an enriched, supportive environment, those with this “differential susceptibility” are actually happier, healthier, and more socially skilled than others. In both outcomes, it seems that sensitive children are paying more attention to subtle cues indicating, for better or worse, what others are thinking and feeling.” (Stoney Brook, 2010)[xxv]
This reinforces the importance of observing and reflecting on the spatial, temporal, and social environment of a child. Schools, daycare, community centers, stores, malls and other social spaces (particularly new contexts) that children attend can be subtle sensory traps (too much noise, visual stimulation, unusual heat, smells, ambient lighting, large amount of chemical trails from products, etc). For highly sensitive children they can also be spaces where their empathy is overloaded by other peoples’ emotions. As with our own lives, it is important to evaluate the quality of the environments with the specific sensory triggers of a child in mind and to provide solutions for the distressing sensory input, such as headphones, caps, etc. It is also important to evaluate the environment for subtle toxic inputs such as air born pollution, or any sensory-based pollution (noise, visual, heat, clutter etc) or people stress.
These dimensions can have positive or negative impact on the senses, the key is to examine whether a balance exist between these dimensions and whether they are saturating a highly sensitive child’s senses.
As aboriginal health models suggest, a connection to nature is crucial to health. Given that they are inter-connected with the world, it is important to insure highly sensitive children have access to nature. This in order to help them balance the senses and feed them with the natural and uncensored sensory input they crave.
A child who has no access to nature may be overwhelmed due to a lack of natural sensory inputs. It is known that natural and green spaces help children to better focus (Kuo and Taylor, 2009)[xxvi]. Such research introduces an environmental/spatial dimension to a health models. It is working within a “social ecology of the landscape model” that creates an important dimension to how children make sense of their world: time and space. This model recognizes that children perceive the world via experiences, learned skills and spatial understanding (Moore and Young, 1978 [xxvii]).
Allowing children to experience the natural and man-made elements in their living environments would generate cognitive, social, and physical skills developments. According to Moore and Wong (1997), play in outdoor environments stimulates all aspects of children’s development more readily than indoor environments. Moore (1986) also claims that children who play in nature have more positive feelings about each other. [xxviii] Nature is also the place where children can develop feelings for the animal and plant kingdoms and develop a holistic sense of empathy for these other species.
From a sensory lens, children calibrate their senses from inputs that emerge out of the environment. When children are outside, they respond to their environment intuitively, they move within nature, climbing trees for example.
But other elements are important. Architecture and the nature of our living spaces have a greater influence on our sensory health than we think. Urban landscape research indicates a relationship between sensory perception of natural environments and human health. One hypothesis is that people perceive green spaces in terms of certain dimensions, where some dimensions are more important and preferred than others with respect to restoring people from stress. (Grahna and Stigdotterb, 2010).[xxix] One study aimed to identify and describe the perceived dimensions in nature; identify which dimensions people in general prefer; and identify a combination of the dimensions people reporting stress prefer. The results identified and described eight perceived sensory dimensions: Serene, Space, Nature, Rich in Species, Refuge, Culture, Prospect and Social. . People in general prefer the dimension Serene. The dimensions Refuge and Nature are most strongly correlated with stress, indicating a need to find the most restorative environments. A combination of Refuge, Nature and Rich in Species, and a low or no presence of Social, could be interpreted as the most restorative environment for stressed individuals.
In the world of children, Architectural researcher Hazreena Hussein[xxx] studied the use of sensory s by children with special educational needs. This study found that users spent a longer time in zones where sensory, rather than aesthetic value, was emphasized. As Hussein retraces, researchers have for over 15 years explored the implications of the built environment and children’s active living.’ (Gibson and Pick[xxxi], 2000).
Researchers Gibson and Pick introduced three concepts that can help us understand these implications: affordance, information and pickup information. Affordance is defined as the functionally significant properties of physical opportunities and dangers, in which an organism perceives while acting in a specific setting (Gibson and Pick, 2000; Heft, 2001[xxxii]; Kytta, 2003[xxxiii]). The environment features as a property of the relationship between the environment and the users and the possibilities that a place can offer users, whether or not the landscape architects intended those possibilities. Thus the importance to ‘examine the relationship between the functional properties of the environment and how environments are used’ (Clark and Uzzel[xxxiv], 2002:95) as it can help us to understand the impact of the physical environment on children and to identify environmental attributes that are associated with specific behavioural responses.’ (Gibson and Pick, 2000).
In addition, the environment provides information to children. As Hussein[xxxv] explains, the environment provides information as ambient arrays of energy that is structured by surfaces, boundaries, events, objects and layout of the environment (Gibson and Pick, 2000). The information perceived changes depending on the perceiver’s movement (sitting, standing, walking, etc.) and their senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell). These changes are essential for identifying, extracting and describing information about where one is, where one is going and what one is accomplishing. For example, users passing through the sensory garden often stop for a while to engage with the features that are adjacent to the pathway. Their engagement enables them to experience different views of the garden.
Finally, children pick up information either in an exploratory and performatory manner (Gibson and Pick, 2000). As Hussein explains: the former permits children to discover the new properties of the environment and also about their own capabilities, while the latter is the outcome of already learned affordances and this relates to actions directed towards objects or an individual(s) within a setting for an intended purpose, for example, throwing, hitting, etc. “Perception and action are closely intertwined in both exploration and performance, and learning is an important outcome of both types of action” (Gibson and Pick, 2000:21). This explains why researcher Sebba articulated that: “Children judge the natural setting not by its aesthetics but by how they interact with the environment” (Sebba, 1991[xxxvi]). Our visual culture imposes visual aesthetics as the norm and in this process impoverishes the sensorial experiences of space. As Hussein wrote:
“Landscape architects think that aesthetic value should be the key goal but ‘sensory value’ is the crucial design aspect, given that users are engaged with the features, and are involved with greater use of their senses than just the visual and appreciation of the aesthetics. What the site or features look like visually is much less important than how it feels, sounds, smells and tastes, as users, who get access to the features are very important.”[xxxvii]
While for centuries, we have designed our spaces from a disembodied visual aesthetics; we need to design spaces that children inhabit from an experiential perspective that includes sensory and spatial considerations. A sensory gifted child, and I would argue any child, is not born to care about the visual aesthetics of a garden as he/she uses the features the way he/she wants to use them. When examining the sensory well being of a highly sensitive child, it is important to question the quality of their environment from this experiential spatial perspective. Do the highly child have access to green space within the home and outside the home? How sensory rich is that environment for that child’s sensory needs?
Aspects of our culture also influences sensory health. Living conditions, financial issues, cultural pressures, etc, all play a role in health. As Pip Waller explains:
“For most systems of medicine in the world, the spirit is in charge, healing must happen in the spirit and healing comes from the spirit. You are your body, but you are more than your body: your thoughts and feelings affect your physical reality far more than you may realize. You do not exist in isolation: your relationships, from the beginning of your life to the present, have formed and continue to form you. If your family is sick, you are affected. If your community is sick, you are affected. If your society is sick, you are affected. “(Waller, 2010, p. 318)[xxxviii]
With no uniform definition, culture and tradition are fluid concepts and often change over the lifespan. It is not an easy theme to capture within health determinants, however, it is a necessary determinant for health. Part of the issue is helping our children understand that their anxieties and suffering is located across time but also across a much larger system as Gabord Mate explains:
“If individuals are part of a multigenerational family system, families and individuals are also parts of a much larger whole: the culture and society in which they live. The functioning of human beings can no more be isolated from the larger social context than can that of a bee in a hive. It is not enough, therefore, to stop at the family system as if it determined the health of its members without regard to the social, economic and cultural forces that shape family life.”[xxxix]
Since Highly Sensitive children are not responding healthily to typical acculturation and socialization, as parents we must learn to begin to heal the generational pain that culture, traditions and families can generate. This generational pain must be addressed and acknowledged in order to be eventually overcome in order to be able to begin the process of healing essential to our children’s well-being and self-realization.
As we saw in chapter 3, researchers have observed that both the gifted, highly sensitive people, introverts, autistics and ADHD kids share a common attribute, which is to not respond well to socialization or acculturation. (Aron, 2010 [xl]; Dabrowski, 1967[xli]; Hartmann, 2003[xlii]). Given the normalized suppression of empathy, and that these children operate from a place of empathy based on an acute awareness of themselves, their environments and other beings, it seems logical that to survive, their being must trump cultural and social suppressive ways.
Our sensory gifted children must be given a safe space where they can explore life outside of typical acculturation and socialization which can seriously damage them.
This not fitting within culture can create cultural stress. Cultural stress is created when there is a poor fit between the person and their societal structures. It can also emerge from competitive culture, activities and rituals, expectations of conformity around marriage, parenting, and life purpose.[xliii]
Culture can damage highly sensitive children in other ways. Cultural discourse is integrated or rejected in the being of a highly sensitive person at a much deeper level. To a highly sensitive child cultural lessons are often anxiety producing as the child will consider the narrative within a broader more holistic perspective than just discursive and social. For instance, lets take how schools discuss the environment. The education children receive is to help forge in them values of “green” life. I have witness my child coming home quite distraught at the impact we are having on animals and all living things, which are affected by our actions. Of course most children feel this way, but a highly sensitive child’s empathy make them feel this as a terrible internal pain. Many of these children may be focusing on the impact to the animals and thinking about their pain.
Another type of stress that can come from our culture is what HSP health refers to as process stress. Process stress refers to any situation, which is poorly, managed resulting in lots of crises and unnecessary problems. Often process stress comes from our relationship with institutions but it can occur in any area of our lives. Many people experience process stress in working with our healthcare system.
Depending on the culture around sensory experiences, a child can learn to cope or to suppress these inputs. Cultural learning that does not support sensorial literacy puts them at a disadvantage. It leads their emotions towards negative emotions and stress and their believes also become negative, plague with self doubt and low self-esteem as their way of being and perceiving tends to be defined as a disability or illness. Thus the importance for us as parents to be willing to suspend out own cultural understanding of the senses.
There is another dimension to be incorporated in what is referred to as our environment, as space is no longer just green/architectural, it now has an important mediated dimension, which must be addressed.
Mediated Spatial Experiences
Two kinds of mediated spatial experiences influence how a child behaves. First, the mediation parents provide with the environment. From their birth, parents, particularly mothers, play an important role in soothing a child and mediating their experiences. Parents are sensory buffers who physically protect their children but also offer a model as to how to understand certain stimuli. Sometimes, a simple touch, or word, can help a child reposition him or herself within his or her body. This may explain why children with heightened senses are often reluctant to experience the world without their parents.
Second, we must consider the mediation technology offers to the child. Especially within urban settings, we live in a spatial man-made reality that our bodies and senses were not designed to live in. While each new generation is slowly adapting to these innovations, the current rate of change is accelerating.
Technology has an important place in our notions of identity. According to Roy Ascott[xliv], through our engagement with Second Life and other virtual worlds and virtual communities, we have a sense not simply of being distributed a-synchronically but of being multiple, with multiple identities, effectively rejecting the existential single-self. Increasingly we recognize that we inhabit phase-space, and live in non-linear time. Indeed, virtual spaces such as Minecraft are social playground where children embody their technological self.
An important aspect of media and technology is there social role. We now exist in a matrix of individual and collective uses of media reinforce certain cultures and social norms but can also influence our perception of experiences and alter our behaviours. Thus, it exists as its own dimension, an extra layer that influences how we exist bodily and in space as seen in the figure below.
Our technologies and forms of communication are changing faster than our sensorial bodies can adapt. Today, these systems of communication are overloaded with technological energies and messages. Our most innate and intimate communication system has been colonized and to a large extend polluted.
Not only do highly sensitive children define themselves through space, spatial signals nourish their senses and are vital to their well being. When space is polluted, the senses take in these toxins and become irritated but when space is clean, the senses harmonize with the environment. These inputs affect the calibration of the senses and the balance of the health determinants, which, in turn, influence how one can perceive, process and respond to spatial communication signals. As we saw, anxiety, for instance, leads to the release of stress hormones that recalibrate the senses to a “fight or flight” state. Sensitivities increase, pain and/or irritability become a dominant sensation and our interactions with the world become negative. But when well being is achieved, happy hormones are flowing and our senses read the environment in a way that promotes and increase harmony with the environment.
According to the news article “What’s wifi doing to us? Experiment finds that shrubs die when placed next to wireless routers”[xlv], some are beginning to express serious concerns regarding wifi signals and the health of plants and animals. One research study, driven by the municipality of Alphen aan den Rijn, in Holland, tried to explain abnormalities on trees in the city, including bark-like tumor nodules. The TU Delft, TNO, Alphen aan den Rijn and Wageningen University’s study showed that that trees exposed to wireless radio signals suffered from damaged bark and dying leaves. Trees placed closest to the Wi-Fi radio developed a ‘lead-like shine’ on their leaves that was caused by the dying of the upper and lower epidermis. This would eventually result in the death of parts of the leaves, the study found. In the Netherlands, about 70 per cent of all trees in urban areas show the same symptoms, compared with only 10 per cent five years ago, the study found. Trees in densely forested areas are not affected.
But scientists have expressed scepticism about research such as this. Nevertheless for a highly sensitive person these findings may be very important as this suggests that these signals have more of an effect on the environment than we realize. What this means long term is unknown. But given how central digital life is to many children’s lives, these findings can indicate that children are being constantly doused in low-level magnetic radiation.
In the article “This Is What Wifi Signals Would Look Like If We Could See Them”, M. Browning Vogel, Ph.D., an astrobiologist and former employee at NASA Ames explains:
“Wifi is an energy field that is transmitted as waves. The waves have a certain height, distance between them and travel at a certain speed. The distance between wifi waves is shorter than that of radio waves and longer than that of microwaves, giving wifi a unique transmission band that can’t be interrupted by other signals. (…)
Wifi waves travel through space as rapid, data encoded pulses or waves. (…) Wifi routers are basically antenna that can send data over multiple frequencies all at the same time. (…) The data from these multiple frequencies swirls around in space as shown here, but can be translated using a common tag system understood by wireless devices.“ [xlvi]
For highly sensitive children, the undetectable waves may be detectable and influence sensory processes.
The Behavioural Dimension of Sensing
The first clue sensory experiences may be unbalanced is a child’s behaviour. An over-stimulated child who does not yet have the literacy nor the words to express sensory distress will turn to “out of control” behaviours to indicate something is wrong. If as a parent we can learn to recognize that cue, we can then turn our attention to the child’s experience in that specific situation.
When a child’s behaviour changes, parents should try to understand what in his/her experience is unusual. Using the four quadrants as a guide, we can begin to ask ourselves questions related to his/her experience, to his/her behaviour, and to their social and cultural dimensions. If away from home, what new stimuli has been introduced? If at home, is it happening in a specific room or social situation? Who was there, how are they feeling, is the room hot, cold, full of technologies? Did the child react after eating or coming home from a lot of stimuli? Etc.
Nonetheless, understanding why our children’s behaviours change is not necessarily an easy process. First because the sensory causes of the discomfort are hidden, but also because our medical culture does not recognize the side effects the senses can have on us as needing to be addressed. In skipping this step, medications, disabilities and pathologies are quickly assigned to a child whose sensory life is simply too intense. Yet, the way our nervous system deals with sensory input can influence many aspects of our being: from motor skills, cognitive skills, learning and our perceptions of the world.
The Nervous System: A Hub of Complex Sensorial Processes
Three distinct sensory processes actually take place that a parent can explore to be able to analyze a highly sensitive child’s sensory discomfort: sensory processing, sensory integration and sensory modulation. These three processes should be examined prior to considering other quadrants of health as when they are imbalanced, the physiology as well as emotional, psychological and genetic aspects of well-being may be affected. Let’s start with some definitions.
Sensory processing represents the way we deal with information processing (Ayers 1989)[xlvii]. According to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation[xlviii], sensory processing refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioural responses[xlix]. Sensory processing is a neurological process that organizes sensation from one’s body and the environment and makes it possible to use the body effectively within the environment. It includes three steps:
- Recognizing sensory information from any sensory systems;
- Interpreting the sensory information;
- Creating a motor response to the sensory information.
According to Elaine Aron, Ph.D., Barbara Allen-Williams, and Jacquelyn Strickland, LPC , Highly sensitive people have a sensory processing sensitivity:
“Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS, HSP, or Highly Sensitive Person) is not a condition, a disorder, or a diagnosis. It is a neutral trait that evolved in 20% of the human population and many non-human species as well, because it is a survival advantage in some situations and not in others. Their survival strategy is to process information (stimuli) more thoroughly than others do, for which there is considerable evidence. This can certainly lead to overstimulation and possibly efforts to protect one’s self against that. However, SPS is not a disorder, but a reasonable strategy.”[l]
While heightened sensory sensitivity is not a disorder, a highly sensitive child who is in a state of constant overload of sensory input, or social/cultural stress will begin to have a different body chemistry and brain balance and could eventually be traumatized. As a result, he or she may begin to show signs of a sensory disorder. This makes diagnostic of a highly sensitive child difficult. The process of diagnostic itself may change the child’s behaviour and fit the criteria that the medical profession has categorized as ADHD, autism, etc. Part of the confusion is that all involve intense reactions to what the senses, spatial and social awareness read.
Elaine Aron, Ph.D., Barbara Allen-Williams, and Jacquelyn Strickland, LPC provide clues that can help parents analyse what is happening to their child. As they explain:
“HSPs process stimuli in a highly organized, big picture way, which includes awareness of nuances and subtleties that others might not notice. Again, at times, HSPs can become extremely overstimulated by the sheer amount of information they may be asked to process. Non-HSPs in our society, who make up about 80% of the general population, do not experience the same level of overstimulation that causes distress to HSPs, and therefore we might say that the amount of stimulation in the environment is set up for the other 80%, not for HSPs.
Sensory Processing (Integration) Disorder, on the other hand, is a neurological disorder. (…) It causes sensory information to get “mixed up” in the brain resulting in responses that are inappropriate in the context in which they find themselves. This can include random and disorganized processing of external stimuli, and can cause great distress, intensity and overstimulation. This overstimulation is sometimes confused with the overstimulation HSPs clearly experience, but it should be noted that the root cause of the overstimulation is not the same.” [li]
Thus the importance of studying your child and to create a “sensory sensitivity” profile and to spend the time to learn what are his/her sensory stressors, what behaviours relate to which stress and to eliminate the sensory toxins from your child’s environment as much as possible.
The following section explains the subtle nuances in sensory processing disorders. It may be useful to help understand what is happening to your child and which sensory process is being compromised. This can be helpful both in becoming literate about sensory health and to understand which aspect of sensory processes requires to be addressed via a sensory diet.
Once sensory input has been processed, it needs to be integrated and organized. In occupational therapy the term sensory integration is used to describe this “organization of sensation for use… (so that) the brain can use those sensations to form perceptions, behaviours, and learning” (Ayres, 1979, p.5)[lii]. Yack, Sutton and Aquilla (2002) describe it as follows:
“Sensory integration is a neurological process that occurs in all of us. We all take in sensory information from our bodies and the world around us. Our brains are programmed to organize or “integrate’’ this sensory information to make it meaningful to us. This integration allows us to respond automatically efficiently, and comfortably in response to the specific sensory input we receive.” (2002,p21)[liii]
Sensory Integration “use” affects our perception of the body or the world, our adaptive response, our learning process, and the development of some neural function. Through sensory integration, the many parts of the nervous system work together so that a person can interact with the environment effectively and experience appropriate satisfaction (Ayres, revised and updated by Pediatric Therapy Network, 2005).
While sensory integration is often considered similar to sensory processing, since they both influence our behaviours, it does affect us differently. Sensory processing influences our motor responses. While sensory integration affects our cognitive abilities: our perception of the world and learning abilities.
The “Pyramid of Development” developed by Taylor and Trott (1991) shows the importance of integration in a child’s development.
|Figure 12 Taylor and Trott’s Pyramid of Development|
It is recognized that the integration of the sensory systems is the prerequisite for all higher level skills. The lower levels of the pyramids are the foundations /building blocks of development. They greatly influence a child’s ability to integrate higher-level skills. When they are not functioning optimally, or are “Out of Sync”, the symptoms they create can be misunderstood as learning disability or mental health problems.
Finally, modulation is another important distinct sensorial process that most directly influences our ability to pay attention and focus. Modulation is the brain’s regulation of sensory input. It helps us to regulate our level of attention and concentration by filtering out background distractions, focusing on important sensory information and regulating how much sensory input we are exposed to. In the article “Modulation: we all do it, but how well?!”, this useful analogy is given:
“ One common analogy for modulation is likening it to the volume control on a radio. We would turn the volume up to enhance important incoming sensory information or turn the volume down to inhibit unimportant incoming sensory information. Let’s take sitting in a classroom for example. A child who can modulate appropriately would be enhancing the sound of the teacher’s instructions, whilst inhibiting the background noise of the air conditioner humming and the groundskeeper mowing outside. Furthermore, the child wouldn’t be paying any attention whatsoever to the feel of the tag on the bag of their shirts or brightness of the fluorescent bulbs. This modulation would all be happening automatically for them, happening on a subconscious level and requiring no effort or attention to occur.
Some children may not be able to modulate their senses so efficiently. For some, a little bit of sensory information may actually feel like A LOT. These are the over-sensitive (hypersensitive) children who may be distressed by unpredictable sounds and noisy surroundings, they may avoid being touched by others or they may fear movement activities such as swings.
On the other end of the scale are the children where a lot feels like A LITTLE. These are the under-sensitive (hyposensitive) children who often seek lots of sensory input (sensory seeking), such as engaging in messy play, seeking lots of movement or mouthing objects. They may not be able to consciously register certain sensory input (low registration), such as someone giving them instructions or tapping them on the shoulder, and may often appear daydreamy and lazy. Children with low registration commonly have difficulties with low muscle tone and poor body awareness.””[liv]
Sensory modulation is an important part of the puzzle as difficulties with sensory modulation may often result in social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. According to Dr. Sutton[lv], Any sensory modulation imbalance affect the ability to regulate and organize the degree, intensity and nature of responses to sensory input in a graded and adaptive manner. It also strongly influences arousal levels. Modulation must be maintained for people to maintain an optimal range of performance and to adapt to challenges in everyday life. Sensory modulation can impact academic learning, social interactions and self-esteem.
While the concept of a disruption in sensory modulation (SMD) has become an important topic in mental health, sensory disruption can be tied to different senses. If we understand which sense is affected, we can begin to develop strategies to help a child learn to self-regulate this difference in an aware and educated way.
Sensory Sensitivities and Disruption
In the presentation “Using Sensory Interventions To Support Recovery”, Dr Sutton[lvi], identifies 3 types of sensorial perceptions: Interoception, which relates to awareness of one’s internal state (ie. hunger, tiredness, illness); Exteroception, relating to awareness of the world in relation to one’s self: ‘Distal’ senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch); and proprioception addressing awareness of one’s body in relation to the world (works with vestibular and tactile input): the ‘Proximal’ senses (body scheme, movement, orientation).
These three types of perceptions are important to understand as they dictate how we feel in the world and when disrupted can lead to behavioural difficulties. Researchers have identified three patterns of sensorial disruptions that correlate to these three forms of perception, which are summarized below (Miller et al., 2007)[lvii]. Bolded are elements parents can use as clues of issues related to their child’s behaviours.
Pattern 1: Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD)
Sensory modulation occurs as the central nervous system regulates the neural messages about sensory stimuli. SMD results when a person has difficulty responding to sensory input with behaviour that is graded relative to the degree, nature, or intensity of the sensory information. Responses are inconsistent with the demands of the situation, and inflexibility adapting to sensory challenges encountered in daily life is observed. Difficulty achieving and maintaining a developmentally appropriate range of emotional and attentional responses often occurs.
An important challenge is that overactive and impulsive symptoms in sensory sensitivities can easily be confused with (and often co-occur with) attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Pattern 2: Sensory Discrimination Disorder (SDD)
People with SDD have difficulty interpreting qualities of sensory stimuli and are unable to perceive similarities and differences among stimuli. They can perceive that stimuli are present and can regulate their response to stimuli but cannot tell precisely what or where the stimulus is.
SDD can be observed in any sensory modality. A person with SDD may have different capacities in each modality (e.g., a visual or auditory discrimination disorder but good discrimination in all other modalities).
Traditional models of sensory discrimination focus on visual, auditory, and tactile perceptions. Unique to the model proposed here is the focus on somatic senses.
Discrimination in the tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular systems leads to smooth, graded, coordinated movement. SDD in these three systems results in awkward motor abilities. SDD in the visual and auditory systems can lead to a learning or language disability.
A person with SDD may require extra time to process the salient aspects of sensory stimuli, leading to “slow” performance. Low self-confidence, attention-seeking behavior, and temper tantrums may result.
Pattern 3: Sensory-Based Motor Disorder (SBMD)
People with SBMD have poor postural or volitional movement as a result of sensory problems. There are two subtypes of SBMD.
SBMD Subtype 1: Postural Disorder (PD)
(PD) is difficulty stabilizing the body during movement or at rest to meet the demands of the environment or of a given motor task. PD is characterized by inappropriate muscle tension, hypotonic or hypertonic muscle tone, inadequate control of movement, or inadequate muscle contraction to achieve movement against resistance. Poor balance between flexion and extension of body parts, poor stability, poor righting and equilibrium reactions, poor weight shifting and trunk rotation, and poor ocular–motor control also may be noted.
SBMD Subtype 2: Dyspraxia.
Dyspraxia is an impaired ability to conceive of, plan, sequence, or execute novel actions. People appear awkward and poorly coordinated in gross, fine, or oral–motor areas.
People with dyspraxia seem unsure of where their body is in space and have trouble judging their distance from objects, people, or both. They may seem accident-prone, frequently breaking toys or objects because of difficulty grading force during movement. People with dyspraxia usually have poor skills in ball activities and sports. They display difficulty with projected action sequences that require timing.
People with dyspraxia, like most children, learn by trial and error, but they require significantly more practice than is typical and demonstrate decreased ability to generalize skills to other motor tasks.
Figure 13: Sensory Processing Disorder
Sensory Processing Disorder Patterns:
All these processes have in common to influence our behaviours. But each individual processes sensory input differently. Personality and sensory traits will alter behaviour in different ways. Occupational therapy researcher Winnie Dunn proposed that four sensory processing patterns characterize the perceptual process. These patterns are thought to arise from individual differences in neurological thresholds for stimulation (high-low) and self-regulation strategies (active-passive). Crossing these dimensions gives us four sensory processing styles (Dunn, 2001[lviii]; 1997[lix]):
“P – Low Registration (High, Passive)
Low-registering people might be described as insensitive or disconnected. They do not pick up on subtle environmental cues, and require very clear and surgent directives. Most events of daily life are not intense enough to stimulate deep processing for these people, and their passive-reactive self-regulatory stance makes them somewhat oblivious to ongoing activity that is not explicitly engaging them.
A – Sensory Avoiding (Low, Active)
Sensory input bothers avoidant people, so they try to limit the input they must deal with. Unfamiliar input is distressing and difficult to understand or organize, so avoiders regularize their experience through rituals, rules and habits. These provide a high rate of familiar input while limiting exposure to new input. The threatening nature of change can make sensory avoiders rigid, uncooperative and withdrawn.
E – Sensory Seeking (High, Active)
Sensory seekers need and enjoy high levels of sensory stimulation, and they generate extra input for themselves. They are active, engaging and excitable. They place a high premium on novelty, which can be disruptive in cases where they do not persist in beneficial activities, abandoning them for something new once the novelty of the initial activity has worn off.
I – Sensory Sensitivity (Low, Passive)
Sensitive people detect more input and notice more sensory events than others, and comment on them regularly rather than trying to ward them off. They are distractible and can be complainers. They are helped by participating in structured sensory experiences so they are not overwhelmed by unstructured and disruptive input.”[lx]
Figure 14: A model of Sensory Processing
Given that Dunn’s sensory profiles relate these sensory processes to models of temperament, and suggests that sensory preferences form a basis for the manifestation of temperament and personality, and that being highly sensitive is a recognized trait, it is crucial to understand the temperament of your child. A highly sensitive child will uniquely combine different behavioural responses to their unique response to sensory stimuli. This is crucial to understand, as multiple children will have different behavioural cues to the same sensory experience.
Behavioural Cues: Sensory Defensiveness and Dormancy
Occupational therapy researcher A. Jean Ayres first identified characteristics of “defensiveness” behaviours related to aversive responses to tactile input, describing it as “the tendency to react negatively and emotionally to touch sensations” (Ayres, 1979, p. 107). She noted a connection between hyperactivity and tactile defensiveness (Ayres, 1972, 1979).
A few years later, in her book, A Holistic Approach to Learning Disorders, Barbara Knickerbocker expanded Ayres’ work to a broader category of sensory defensiveness, she placed sensory on a continuum with sensory dormancy. She described sensory dormancy as, “too much…inhibition of incoming sensory stimuli” (p. 32)[lxi]. In Knickerbocker’s view, too little inhibition resulted in sensory defensiveness and too much inhibition resulted in sensory dormancy.
There can be confusion when reading some of the literature on sensory defensiveness and dormancy as researchers do not agree on how they relate to one another. Ann Fisher and Winnie Dunn (Dunn & Fisher, 1983)[lxii] proposed that tactile defensiveness and registration problems were the opposing ends of a single continuum. Fisher, Murray and Bundy found major observable behavioural signs of Sensory Modulation difficulties — avoidance, distractibility and increased activity level— that they suggested as the end products of such disruption (Fisher, Murray and Bundy, 1990)[lxiii]. While Royeen (1989) elaborated on a continuum model where sensory defensiveness and sensory dormancy are part of one circular continuum with sensory dormancy and defensiveness as potentially adjacent functions[lxiv]. Wilbarger & Wilbarger (1991) proposed that sensory defensiveness is on a continuum of approach and avoidance behaviours[lxv].
Important to parents facing a diagnose of autism, Kimball (1993) introduced the concept of shut down which she described as a protective mechanism against severe overload. She illustrated the notion of a non-linear continuum by describing individuals at the extremes of behaviour, i.e.: “some children even react in a dangerous way and go from overarousal to physiological shut down.”[lxvi]
As neuroscience advances, it is becoming clear that the brain is a complex heterarchy, therefore, sensory modulation probably includes complex models of stimuli comprised of dynamic, interactive systems. This explains some of the confusion around these issues. This does reinforce what Dunn (1997) suggested: that there are probably multiple, interacting continua[lxvii].
It is surprising that this knowledge is not more disseminated within broader contexts such as with doctors and teachers. Living professionals and parents alike struggling to understand what is happening to their children could develop essential insights by understanding sensory processing related issues. Particularly given that occupational therapists understand SMD as a disruption in processing rather than a disorder (Wilbarger and Merman Stackhouse, 1998)[lxviii].
Given that the medical culture tends to disregard sensory processing outside of a medical diagnostic, this foundational step of their development is often left to deteriorate or is suppressed via medication. The more we drug children or penalize them for out of sync behaviours, the less likely they will learn to regulate these processes in a positive way. Considering that highly sensitive children are sensory gifted, they could easily display sensory overexitabilities, these reactions are not pathologies but normal reactions given their heightened receptivity to sensory inputs. Whereas our culture accepts intellectual gifteness, if it continues to ignore the other dimensions of giftedness in diagnoses, we will continue to distress these children.
The repression of the senses via medication is particularly problematic for a highly sensitive child, as it is clear that identity formation depends on a positive relationship to their heightened sensory processes. Their access to well being depends on learning to become aware of their heightened senses, to process their sensory inputs and develop sensory and mind sights allowing them to understand how they affect their responsiveness and of course, how they participate in regulating sensory experiences within their multiple dimensions.
When we suspend our cultural/social suppressing mechanism, which makes us react to the situation as something to immediately stop and reprimand, and instead become a sensory detective that try to understand why the child’s behaviour has changed by tuning into the child’s experience, we can begin to put together the puzzles of heightened sensory responsiveness.
Key to sensory well-being is finding the right arousal level. Dr Sutton explains that sensory modulation can lead to feel alert or drowsy and tense or calm and that the optimal arousal state is a “calm and alert” state as can be seen in Dr Sutton’s figure below.
Figure 15: Arousal Levels
When optimal arousal levels are maintained, a child is in a calm and alert state, which will allow for the rest of his being to function properly. But when arousal is too intense or too little, the rest of the being will suffer.
Understanding the sensory profile of a child makes it possible to analyze the nature of his or her sensory experience and to adjust the environment based on the child’s sensory needs. Similarly to what Dunn understood in sensory processing styles, if we can begin to understand whether there is a sensitivity, or a processing, integration or modulation issue, we can work towards appropriate sensory experiences. The complex landscape of stimuli is coupled to a sensory processing and modulation system calibrated to the uniqueness of each individual. Thus the need to be a “sensory detective’ and to analyze a child’s behaviours and reaction to various sensory inputs from the perspective of his or her unique sensory system.
What I have found with one of my children, is that his sensory sensitivities are not just at the processing stage, they are also embedded within the sensory modulation aspect of sensing. His sensory processes and modulation become irritated by stress and trauma. He then enters a “funnel vision” cognitive state and he can no longer pay attention. As the trauma and stress are reduced, his modulation issues decrease dramatically and his senses go back to a “highly sensitive” range where his holistic nature can flourish. It is a subtle process and I have found that diagnosis are not accurate with him as the stress they create changes his ability to think, move and be in the world.
Two questions parents should ask themselves. First, Is it a sensory sensitivity or is something else going on?
Leading specialists in the field of highly sensitive health Elaine Aron, Ph.D., Barbara Allen-Williams, and Jacquelyn Strickland, LPC, provide a questionnaire that can help clarify the sensory issue:
“Regardless of the profound differences in these traits, there are ways to minimize overstimulation. Many with Sensory Processing Disorder have found success with occupational therapists who help them better integrate stimuli into their experience. Indeed, many people without the full-blown disorder benefit from these methods, and some parents of highly sensitive children, children without the disorder, say it has helped them.
In contrast, many with Sensory Processing Sensitivity have found success by simply becoming educated about their genetic trait (or their child’s). They learn to create a proper balance in their day which may include meditation, creative arts, walks in nature, yoga, and learning which environments serve them best. Many have found seeking outside professional help from those who are educated about SPS to be helpful — mainly to help them reframe and understand their experiences as being normal.
Perhaps the truest test of what differentiates SPS from not only SPD, but also other diagnoses such as Autism and Aspergers Syndrome, are the four things all HSPs have in common ~ the D.O.E.S. as defined and eloquently explained in Elaine Aron’s book, Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person.
D.O.E.S. refers to: Depth of Processing; Overstimulation; Emotional Intensity; and Sensory Sensitivity. For example here are some questions to ask in each category which help identify and differentiate Sensory Processing Sensitivity:
Depth of Processing
- Does this person reflect more than others about the “way the world is going;” the meaning of life or their line of work?
- Is this person slow at making decisions, preferring to have “a little more time,” but often makes very good decisions?
- Is this person known for their good ideas?
- Does this person exhibit personal insight and have a sense of long-term consequences, perhaps leading to unusual conscientiousness?
- Does this person experience overstimulation and burn out due to the sheer amount of incoming information, experiencing a sense of not being able to handle any more? And when in a gentle environment, do they effectively process and integrate stimuli?
- Do others sometimes think something is wrong with them because they cannot handle as much as others seem to? This may be because HSPs often decline activities, even if enjoyable, in order to take care of themselves.
- Does this person need more sleep and downtime than their family and friends?
Emotional Responsiveness and Empathy
- Is this person more easily and appropriately moved to tears of joy, gratitude or relief, and equally moved to laughter whether by sheer silliness or subtle irony?
- Does this person react more to the emotions of others and often know what you are feeling far more than others do?
- Does this person become more distressed by violent TV shows or movies; unfairness, bullying, social injustice, or other disturbing events?
Sensitive to Subtleties
Does this person notice small changes others miss, such as someone looking tired, the décor of a room they have only been in briefly, or small flowers or animals or even animal tracks?
Is this person more aware than others of the sound of a ticking clock or dripping water, or subtle tastes and smells?
Does this person notice what needs to be changed in an environment to make others more comfortable?’ [lxix]
The second question for a parent becomes, what causes my child’s sensory imbalances? Sensory difficulties can come from many sources. Some may be sensorial but other elements can come into play that will heighten reactions. Emotional or physiological difficulties can trigger a heightened sensory experience and visa versa.
To understand this part of the issue, we must look deeper into what alters a child’s behaviour. The body reacts to anything we sense via changes in behaviours. Thus, we need to understand how the body is connected to sensory experiences since behaviours can be responses to a chemical, emotional, cognitive, physiological, and/or genetic stimuli. As we will explore next.
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