I have come to realize through my own family experiences that there is a way to help these children thrive, but it requires us to understand and address these children’s sensorial needs as positive and fundamental traits that are part of a healthy life. This is hard work and unfortunately, it means to go against the mainstream ideas given that the senses are not recognized as essential to health in our western disembodied culture that worships the analytical mind at the expenses of the senses in how we perceive the world.
My journey in the world of sensory health began with the birth of my children. My first-born always refused to be cuddled. It was clear that touching was a painful experience for him. He was highly sensitive to my milk, I had to eliminate many foods. This was my first step in beginning a journey of change to address the heightened sensitivities of a highly sensitive child. He was a happy baby but when time came to out him into daycare, I noticed his was different. He would nurture other children who were struggling in the daycare setting, but after a few days of adjustment to this new environment, he began to have nightmares. After spending a fews days with him in the day care, it became clearto me that his reactions were to the stress of that environment. His reactions were more intense than other children. As I was pregnant with my second child, I kept him home. The nightmares stopped immediately.
My second child was even more sensitive to food, sound and environmental elements. Our lives became very stressful, having to relearn how to cook for a child who kept on reacting to most things in our environment constantly. As I went back to work, the stress level of our family increased and my child’s sensitivities increased as well. New stressful environments would bring strange behaviors from my children.
I found myself seeking solutions and answers to the difficulties my children were facing. Yet, the medical community fell short of being able to help us. Sensitivities are not easy to diagnosed, and often considered to not be a real condition. Our pediatrician and my partner thought I was an overprotective mother who did not know how control her children’s behaviors in an effective way. They were reacting like the majority of society, considering that sensory processing is not a condition and that parenting is at the source of these “out of control” behaviors.
Thankfully, today, researchers are beginning to prove that it does exist and in part emerges out of real differences in the brain. For instance, in a study at UCSF, researchers used an advanced form of MRI called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), to get information about the brain’s white matter tracts. The brain’s white matter is essential for perceiving, thinking and learning. The researchers found that an abnormal white matter tracts in the SPD subjects, primarily involving areas in the back of the brain, that serve as connections for the auditory, visual and somatosensory (tactile) systems involved in sensory processing, including their connections between the left and right halves of the brain:
““These are tracts that are emblematic of someone with problems with sensory processing,” said Mukherjee. “More frontal anterior white matter tracts are typically involved in children with only ADHD or autistic spectrum disorders. The abnormalities we found are focused in a different region of the brain, indicating SPD may be neuroanatomically distinct.” [i]
The researchers found a strong correlation between the micro-structural abnormalities in the white matter of the posterior cerebral tracts focused on sensory processing and the auditory, multisensory and inattention scores reported by parents in the Sensory Profile. The strongest correlation was for auditory processing, with other correlations observed for multi-sensory integration, vision, tactile and inattention.
The abnormal microstructure of sensory white matter tracts shown by DTI in kids with SPD likely alters the timing of sensory transmission so that processing of sensory stimuli and integrating information across multiple senses becomes difficult or impossible.
“We are just at the beginning, because people didn’t believe this existed,” said Marco. “This is absolutely the first structural imaging comparison of kids with research diagnosed sensory processing disorder and typically developing kids. It shows it is a brain-based disorder and gives us a way to evaluate them in clinic.”[i]
Researchers are working towards helping us understand how sensory processing affect children, I knew from our life experiences that the behaviors associated with sensory over or under load could be regulated.
I observed that my children’s “acting out” was a reaction to specific type of people, usually anxious, as much as to specific types of environment. They are what I now understand to be highly empathic. In other words, they are deeply sensitive to other people’s moods, an anxious person would make my eldest son act out of control immediately. Of course my anxieties made him react too.
During a medical checkup, my son’s out of control behavior intrigued the doctor who decided we should evaluate him for autism. So I did. The team who evaluated him had a hard time deciding on a diagnostic, as his issues were very slight, but they did in the end evaluate him as having the Asperger syndrome. As suggested by the evaluation team, I also got diagnosed and eventually labeled as also having Asperger tendencies. Through this process, the psychologist who diagnosed me introduced me to the Highly Sensitive Person personality trait and it immediately resonated with issues we were facing. It made me realize why both me and my son were considered “borderline” Asperger cases.
According to Wikipedia:
“ A highly sensitive person (HSP) is a person having the innate trait of high sensory processing sensitivity (or innate sensitiveness as Carl Jung originally coined it[i],[ii]). According to Elaine N. Aron and colleagues as well as other researchers, highly sensitive people, who comprise about a fifth of the population (equal numbers in men and women), may process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly due to a biological difference in their nervous systems.[iii] This is a specific trait, with key consequences for how we view people, that in the past has often been confused with innate shyness, social anxiety problems, inhibitedness, social phobia and innate fearfulness,[iv],[v] and introversion.[vi] (…) Although the term is primarily used to describe humans, something similar to the trait is present in over 100 other species.[vii] [viii]
The discovery of this highly sensitive trait changed our lives. It helped me to understand that heightened sensory processing is not necessarily a disorder but that some of us possess a deep sensory sensitivity, a gift that should be fostered, not eliminated, since it helps us perceive the world in much more nuanced details than most. I began to research the world of sensory processing and HSPs. I decided not to ignore or “cure” our sensitivity but to celebrate them and to help my children develop these incredible qualities to their fullest.
My second child was diagnosed as ADHD. He resembles his father in terms of sensory processing issues. He is at peace in nature but is overwhelmed by crowds and noise. He has an incredible ability to pick up subtlety in the environment and in people but can not focus on tasks that do not engage him.
While at first look my two sons seem very different, I actually find them to be very similar in their sensory approach. Both are highly sensitive but one is an introvert and the other one an extrovert. One gets overstimulated while the other is often understimulated. The sensory similarities between them made me wonder about the role of the senses in our lives. Through trying to help my children thrive I began an incredible journey into the world of highly sensitive people and sensory processing. The more I researched the subject, the more I realized how lost our western world has become and how much our culture is hurting highly sensitive children. Hurting them with sensory illiterate environments, assumptions of disease and stigma which resemble a type of sensorial genocide.
[i] Bunim, Juliana (2013). Breakthrough Study Reveals Biological Basis for Sensory Processing Disorders in Kids, University of California San Francisco, https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2013/07/107316/breakthrough-study-reveals-biological-basis-sensory-processing-disorders-kidsi