Chapter 3: Sensory Abilities Are Not Disabilities (Draft)

“That which you mistake for madness is but an overacuteness of the senses.” ― Edgar Allan

The elimination of sensory awareness from our language and culture has resulted in their elimination from our medical narratives as well. This has had terrible consequences on the health of highly sensitive children. It has made their sensory reality invisible.

As we saw in the introduction, sensory perception sensitivity (SPS) is now recognized as a personality trait characterized by heightened sensitivity to internal and external stimuli, including social, emotional and environmental ones. However, given that this trait is an invisible minority in society, the needs and traits of highly sensitive children have been ignored and misunderstood. In fact, many behaviors and conditions that are the results of overly stimulated senses are often misdiagnosed as pathologies, becoming labels of illnesses, bad behaviors, diseases or disabilities that need to be cured.

Some medical professionals do question this pathologization of childhood. As Dr. Laney explains:

There is a lot of confusion and disagreement about such terms as shyness, social anxieties, high sensitivity, autism and Asperger syndrome, sensory integration dysfunction, dyslexia, and disorders such as ADD and ADHD and other problems that affect children’s lives. (…) Some researchers wonder if these conditions should even be looked at as syndromes or types of dysfunction as opposed to merely the far side of the normal brain continuum.”[1]

The current state of controversy around the misdiagnosis of childhood disorders is alarming. Professionals have a hard time differentiating between giftedness, heightened sensory sensitivity (or a Highly Sensitive Person), ADHD and Autism in children since many of the “symptoms” overlap and we tend to forget that children’s developmental stages are not as normalized as we are led to believe.

One element all these diagnosis have in common is the predominance of sensory processing and/or integration differences, which affect attention. Even more alarming, heightened sensory processing sensitivities are not recognized as a condition on their own. Without a diagnose of “disease” or exceptionality, children and adult who have these heightened senses can not be helped by the medical and other public communities such as schools. And, a misdiagnosis can seriously damage children: As Linda Graham points out:

“ a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder does not result in compassion and understanding. More often than not, children who are diagnosed with ADHD (and their parents) meet attitudes tainted by suspicion and contempt (Carpenter & Austin, 2007). Furthermore, they often experience institutional discrimination and social rejection (see Neophytou, 2004). Recent research in education shows just how debilitating these early years experiences can be to children’s `-esteem and self-worth (Exley, 2005) but also that these are not mediated by medication. Indeed, the child’s “need” for medication serves to reinforce to the child that they are defective and “bad”. And so the spiral begins… but this is also when and where it can be circumvented (Graham, 2007, p. 3)[2]

Are sensory processing abilities another example of a pathologized form of difference? Let’s not forget that our modern western culture and its health system have a tendency of pathologizing difference and oppressing manifestations ways of being it does not approve of or understand. As Maggie Koerth-Baker reminds us:

Not so long ago, homosexuality was officially considered a mental illness. And in a remarkable bit of societal blindness, the diagnosis of drapetomania was used to explain why black slaves would want to escape to freedom.”[3]

By medicalizing heightened sensory processing capacities, we are potentially repeating the pattern of our past, the institutionalizing of sensory difference echoing the treatment of women and other marginalized groups in previous decades:

“ Like another social movement of that time concerned with the institutionalisation and treatment of those with a mental illness, it raised for me the moral dilemmas of patient’s autonomy, their control over, or at least input into the medication they received, and the broader pursuit of social and economic circumstances which might help them to flourish. The fundamental importance of asking the question why (…) . On a daily basis American children line up in ordinary primary schools for their dose of Ritalin or other medication for ADD.

(…) One of the world’s most eminent child psychiatrists, Sir Michael Rutter, has expressed his concern that for a diagnosis to be useful it must be distinctive from other disorders in its causation, natural progression and treatment. He feels ADHD as currently defined does not satisfy these requirements.”[4]

This criticism alone makes it important to probe sensory processing in children before accepting a diagnosis. Thankfully, slowly, some medical research is beginning to understand that many “disabilities” are simply different ways of perceiving the world, not defects. In the world of the senses what was once considered a sensory processing disorder is now also considered a sensitivity or a gift. Some parents and some medical professionals are warning us that the epidemic of ADHD and Autism diagnoses we are facing should be carefully considered.

ADHD and Autism: an Umbrella Diagnoses Hiding Other Issues?

According to researcher Allison S. Bell[5], ADHD is the most pervasive psychological disorder among children in their schooling years (Woo & Keatinge, 2008)[6], affecting many aspects of their functioning and development. If ADHD or ADD is one of the fastest growing diagnoses in children, it seems surrounded by a wave of controversy over increase diagnosis of young children. The sheer volumes of books contradicting themselves on the subject can leave a parent spinning in confusion. Let’s have a look at how ADHD is defined.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, is the guide that lays out the criteria to be used by doctors, mental health professionals, and other qualified clinicians when making a diagnosis of ADHD. In the DSM-5, ADHD is defined as a neurodevelopment disorder affecting both children and adults. It is described as a “persistent” or on-going pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that gets in the way of daily life or typical development Individuals with ADHD may also have difficulties with maintaining attention, executive function (or the brain’s ability to begin an activity, organize itself and manage tasks) and working memory.

According to DSM V[7], there are three presentations of ADHD: 1) Inattentive, 2) Hyperactive –Impulsive, 3) Combined inattentive & hyperactive – impulsive[8].

While these types of ADHD are the most often used by medical professionals for diagnosis, there are other definitions. For instance, in the book Healing ADD-The Breakthrough Program That Allows You to See and Heal the 7 Types of ADHD, psychiatrist Daniel Amen, outlines seven different types of ADHD. Through his practice, Dr Amen began using SPECT imaging and realized that different areas of the brain can trigger ADHD behaviors. Dr. Amen views ADHD not as one disorder but as a “cluster of symptoms”[9] associated with different causes.  Another professional correlates this position.

In the professional experience of Dr. Lawrence Wilson, MD, ADD and ADHD are not a single disorder, but rather are symptoms with many possible causes:

“The causes can be divided into those from outside a person, and those from within.  Outside influences include factors such as the family, home and school environments.

Internal causes include structural, biochemical, congenital, genetic or other bodily imbalances.  Factors such as nutrition and brain chemistry are often overlooked.  In addition to vital nutrient deficiencies, toxic metal excesses, hypoglycemia, chronic yeast infection, central nervous system allergies, this article discusses the effects of stimulants in the diet, congenital imbalances, the effects of medications, and a faster-than-normal metabolic rate. “[10]

Interestingly, these medical professionals consider that treatments must be based on lifestyle changes, nutrition and food supplements. Amen recommends ADHD medication only as a last resort, believing medication “can help some people, but can also make some people worse. “[11]. Dr Wilson believes nutrition and lifestyle changes should replace medication treatment.

If these approaches are not embraced by the medical community, they are enough to suggest that other roots can be causing attention issues in children. The overarching umbrella of ADHD may indeed cover too many symptoms that could be caused by other issues such as sensory processing abilities. Interestingly, the same controversy is appearing in the autism epidemic.

According to the website autismspeaks.com[12], autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. With the May 2013 publication of the DSM-5 diagnostic manual, all autism disorders were merged into one umbrella diagnosis of ASD. Previously, they were recognized as distinct subtypes, including autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger syndrome.

Slowly, an increased number of symptoms, including sensory processing differences, are being combined into the same diagnosis. This can lead to a misdiagnosis trap. As Dr Enrico Gnaulati explains in this book “Back to Normal: Why Ordinary Childhood Behavior Is Mistaken for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder”, defining autism as a “spectrum disorder,” means that Autism now incorporates mild and severe cases of problematic social communication and interaction, as well as restricted interests and behavior. In its milder form, it can be difficult to distinguish between early signs of autism spectrum disorder and other causes. [13]

While there is no doubt that autism does exist, Michael Goldberg, in his book, “The Myth of Autism:  How a Misunderstood Epidemic is Destroying Our Children”, asserts that thousands of children are being mislabeled when what is actually affecting them is a compromised immune system due to a viral infection-often caused by receiving too many inoculations at the same time or while the child already had an overextended immune system due to illness as well as allergy induced diets.[14]Goldberg considers these conditions to be physical conditions that can be treated through proper medication and diet, and not genetic or psychosemantic ailments.

For a parent with a child who has sensory processing sensitivities, the broad spectrum of sensory processing symptoms incorporated into the ADHD and autism diagnoses pose a serious problem. In order to help these children thrive by avoiding damaging misdiagnoses, parents, educators and caregivers must learn to listen to them and to be aware of what sensory integration sensitivity means. This is essential as sensory processing sensitivity takes different form in every person. Listening is not the simple act of hearing their words, but also to learn to observe these children and understand what motivates their actions. The first step in this deep listening is to understand what sensory processing means.

The Sensory Connection

The notion of sensory processing difference is also controversial within the medical community. On one hand, the DSM-V no longer includes sensory processing as a stand-alone phenomenon, in essence denying its existence. On the other hand, researchers such as Dr. Lucy Jane Miller, author of Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder, and Director of the STAR Center, who has been working on this issue for more than thirty years, provide scientific evidence that Sensory Processing Disorder is an actual, physiological condition.

In the article “ The Phantom Menace: Do 1 in 20 kids really have Sensory Processing Disorder?”, by Vivian Manning-Schaffel, Dr. Miller explains that :

medical professionals often misdiagnose SPD as ADHD and/or autism because the lines between the disorders are slightly blurred. “It’s not in the autism spectrum, but almost all children who have autism or Asperger’s syndrome have sensory problems, sometimes very significantly. But the majority of kids who have sensory problems don’t have autism,” says Dr. Miller.

The distinction gets even more confusing when it comes to ADHD. “We’ve found that about 40% of kids who have one, have the other, so there is overlap,” says Dr. Miller. “But they are two separate diagnoses that coexist – they are not the same thing. A child with ADHD has an impulse control issue, and extra sensory information doesn’t help. A sensory-seeking child calms down if you give them what their brain needs.”[15]

If the doubt of the medical community dominates the discussion on sensory processing, researchers from the University of California San Francisco, have recently confirmed that it is real but also began to pin point its affect on the brain (UCSF, 2013)[16]. In this process, they have established that it affects a different part of the brain than Autism and ADHD.

Furthermore, according to the University of Virginia Health System, sensory processing issues and preferences may be completely normal, especially in young children whose nervous systems are still in the process of development:

“When these preferences become a concern is when the child’s sensory tolerance or need (whether seeking sensation or avoiding it) interferes with functioning in the environments of family, school or the playground,” explains Goldeen. “For instance, if a family has stopped going anywhere because it’s too difficult, or a 3-year-old child has been kicked out of several preschools, then we’re talking about quirks that have become dysfunctional.”[17]

The term Dysfunctional is, in itself, misleading, so are labels such as sensory processing disorders. Extreme sensory reactions do not necessarily mean there is something wrong with the child. Some research in developmental psychology provides further evidence that individuals differ in their sensitivity. According to the differential susceptibility hypothesis by Belsky and Pluess (2009)[18] individuals vary in the degree they are affected by experiences or qualities of the environment they are exposed to.

Their research suggests that individuals should be differentially susceptible to environmental influences, with some people being not just more vulnerable than others to the negative effects of adversity, but also disproportionately susceptible to the beneficial effects of supportive and enriching experiences (or just the absence of adversity). They believe that individuals differ in plasticity, some individuals being more malleable or susceptible than others to both negative and positive environmental influences. In other words, it is “normal” for some people are easily overwhelmed or underwhelmed by sensory input that does not bother others.

Such findings are echoed in other areas of research. In the essay “The Science of Success,”[19] Journalist David Dobbs writes about two types of children: “orchids” and “dandelions.” Dandelion children, who are in majority, tend to do pretty well no matter what environment they grow up in. Orchid children, meanwhile, may develop behavior or mood problems in abusive or neglectful homes — but in loving ones, they may thrive even more than dandelions. While abuse is meant as emotional or neglect, in the context of sensory processing issues it must be understood to also include attacks on the senses that can be caused by the environment, a topic we will explore in chapter 4.

According to Dobbs’ research, the difference between dandelions and orchids may be genetic. For instance, kids with a certain variant of a dopamine-processing gene are at greater risk of ADHD and “externalizing behavior” (i.e. “acting out”) than other children. But in one study, these kids also improved much more in response to a video-based behavioral intervention than did kids who didn’t have the at-risk variant. Similarly, rhesus monkeys with another gene variant (one associated with depression in humans) are worse at processing serotonin than their peers if they are raised as orphans. But when raised by a loving monkey mother, these seemingly at-risk animals process serotonin more efficiently than other monkeys, and are also more socially successful. These and other studies suggest that certain genes confer not risk per se, but a kind of openness to environmental stimuli, positive or negative. Thus the importance of dealing with sensory processing in positive ways.

The work of Dr Amen and other researchers demonstrate that many areas of the brain and different chemical balance create different type of behavioral change, the label of ADHD and autism can easily be assigned to children who simply have different reaction to stimuli.

If this is indeed the case, the use of ADHD or autism medications are inappropriate and potentially dangerous to their well-being. These drugs are not as safe as we are led to believe. On Wed Sep 26 2012, David Bruser,News Reporter, and Andrew Bailey, Data Analyst, reported in the Toronto star article: “ADHD drugs are suspected of hurting Canadian kids”, that a growing number of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and parents are reporting that they believe attention deficit drugs are causing major health problems in patients, many as young as 6 and 7 years old.[20] They found that in the past 10 years, nearly 600 cases of Canadian kids suffering serious, sometimes fatal side effects suspected to have been caused by ADHD medications.   The side effects include strokes, convulsions, hallucinations, depression and suicide:

Though the number of Canadian kids with the disorder is unclear — one estimate puts it at one in 20 children — parents are increasingly turning to these drugs to deal with the diagnosis. In the 10 years reviewed by the Star, 76 kids on ADHD medications thought about killing themselves. One-third of these were children younger than 10, some as young as 6. (…) In 52 of these suicidal ideation reports, the attention deficit drug Strattera is listed as the suspected cause of the side effect. In 12 of the reports, Concerta is listed as the suspected cause. It is also listed as the suspected cause of one completed suicide.”[21]

Scarier still, ADHD medications Strattera and Concerta were the second- and third-highest suspected causes of reported serious side effects suffered by Canadian kids taking any drug in the past 10 years:

“More than any cancer drug. More than any powerful antipsychotic for kids with serious mental illness. More than nearly 1,800 other drugs reported to have been the suspected cause of a serious side effect in a Canadian youth since 2001. In more than 40 per cent of all cases where a youth thought about suicide, an ADHD drug is listed as the suspected cause. The Star found side effects on most parts of the body — the brain, respiratory system, several major organs, blood, skin, eyes, ears, and hair“[22]

While Health Canada, collects these adverse reaction reports, it does not alert the public to the magnitude of these side effects. Because the regulator has not analyzed the data it collects, it has allowed the industry to largely police itself. If parents do not pay close attention to what is affecting their children, they run the risk of damaging them for life. These dangers make it worth investigating with a child does have a sensory processing sensitivities that are affecting his or her ability to be focused.

Sensory Processing Sensitivities

A great deal of confusion also surrounds sensory processing definitions, which makes it difficult to diagnoses to an untrained eye or without knowing a child intimately. Sensory processing sensitivities cannot be pined down to one type of behavior because they can impact any one sense or a combination of several. They can affect the auditory, visual, tactile, vestibular (movement), proprioception (awareness of joint/body position), but can also affect the chemical body. As Ruth Goldeen, an occupational therapist, explains:

We all have a unique nervous system with preferences and distastes for sensory input. One person might prefer to spend free time in an arcade with plenty of noise and hustle and bustle; another might want to sit in a quiet space and read a book. Both are ‘normal’ but definitely opposite extremes. And certainly some people may know they don’t like loud noises or crowds and find ways to adjust their environments accordingly.”[23]

People’s responses to sensory input exist on a continuum of behaviors, which will have at one end of the spectrum sensory defensiveness and at the other end of sensory seeking, as we saw in the introduction. These differences translate into a wide range of behaviors:

“Sensory defensiveness: A child who is sensory defensive doesn’t like touch, sound or input they don’t create themselves. It sends them into “fight or flight” mode, an acute stress response triggered by real or perceived threat that causes the release of hormones and increases heart, breath and blood pressure rates.

Example: A 3-year-old spends the day in daycare, which often means a chaotic, noisy atmosphere filled with unpredictable children. By the end of the day, the child, having spent 8 or 9 hours in a state of heightened anxiety, reacts to normal interactions as if to a threat, by running away, hiding or punching.

Sensory seeking: A child seeking sensory input will bang into everything, literally bounce off the walls, even chew things. Example: “They don’t seem reactive to the environment. The child will be finger painting and suddenly the paint covers their whole body. Or the child will walk right off the edge of the playset. And they don’t react at all. It’s a hyporeaction, an underresponsive reaction.” Goldeen explains that sensory seekers often end up in long-term hobbies that involve a great deal of physical stimulation, like rugby, football and horseback riding.”[24]

According to the article “ADHD… Is it? Or isn’t it?” posted on the SPD Support website:

“Sensory seeking children crave more sensory input. They seem to have a never ending desire for sensory stimulation. For example, they may seek out movement stimulation by rocking on their chairs and/or oral (mouth) stimulation by chewing on their shirts. Those who can’t meet their own sensory needs may complain of ‘being bored’.”[25]

Could some ADHD misdiagnosis be caused by behaviors of unchallenged and bored sensory seekers? M.D. Stanley Greenspan suggests that is indeed the case. He explains that a great number of children whom he sees in his medical practice for ADHD have motor planning and sequencing problems not ADHD. The children who often get misdiagnosed with ADHD are sensory-seeking children who are constantly looking for more touch, more sight, more sound, more movement and in the process are more active, distractible and inattentive (Greenspan, 2009, p. 6).

This is not to suggest that ADHD is not a real condition. Dr. Lucy Jane Miller, in her (Putnam, 2006) book “Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder”, outlines very clearly, what, according to her research, she believes are ADHD symptoms and what are SPD symptoms. Which behaviors and symptoms stand alone, and how they can overlap.

Dr. Miller wrote:

“Defining the difference between ADHD and SPD:

  • Cannot stop impulsive behavior regardless of sensory input.

  • Craves novelty and activity that is not necessarily related to specific sensations.

  • Does not become more organized after receiving intense sensory input.

  • Has difficulty waiting or taking turns.

  • Waits or takes turns better with cognitive rather than sensory input.

  • Tends to talk all the time, impulsively interrupting, has trouble waiting for turn in any conversation.”

According to the article “ADHD… Is it? Or isn’t it?” posted on the SPD Support website:

“(…) a leading OT who is also a published SPD researcher reported to me: “I am seeing significant improvements in diagnosed, medicated ADHD kids, using Sensory Integrative Therapy only. They are calmer, more focused and attentive, and we are going to do a study on these kids to find out just how much they are improving!”

And she and a couple other fine researchers did just that. They did two groups, starting with the SIPT test (Sensory Integration and Praxis Test) treating a little over half the kids for six months, then retesting. A majority of these kids did indeed respond to treatment and some were able to go completely off medications. These children did respond, neurological changes did appear to occur and they did show improvements per parent report and clinic testing.”[26]

Another important aspect of sensory processing difference is sensory under-responsiveness. According to The Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario:

Children who are under responsive to sensory input look quiet and passive. They seem to have no energy or motivation during everyday activities. These children may need much more sensory input to feel ‘just right’ and be ready to work or learn. Children may find it easier to focus on school work if they exercise a little before sitting down to desk work; have lots of chances for active, ‘hands-on’ learning.

Children can have a mix of sensory sensitivities and under responsiveness. For example, a child may be sensitive to touch, but seek out vestibular (movement) input. Things might also change from day to day. A child might be very sensitive one day, and not bothered by the same things at all on the next day. “[27]

In young children this quietness and passivity could be mistaken for autism.

Another element to be aware of, sensory processing sensitivity is very common amongst gifted children. Yet, in the article ” Asynchronous development and sensory integration intervention in the gifted and talented population”[28], Anne Cronin points out that most occupational therapists providing sensory integration do not have any training in the special developmental and behavior issues of gifted children and can not address some of their unique needs. This adds to the complexity of misdiagnosis, as the ADHD characteristics of over-stimulations are very similar to those potentially experienced by the gifted.

The Gifted: the Myth of the Overachiever
Giftedness, just like ADHD, autism and highly sensitive people, represents a spectrum of characteristics. Two gifted people are not alike. HSP are often gifted, but not all gifted are a HSP. There is no consensus as to how “gifted” should be defined, but one definition that resonates for me is the following, which is based on the gifted child’s differences from the norm:

“Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.”[29]

Giftedness has an emotional as well as intellectual component. Intellectual complexity goes hand in hand with emotional depth. Gifted children not only think differently from other children, they also feel differently. The theories of psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski have greatly informed our understanding of the social and emotional aspects of giftedness[30], [31].

One of the basic characteristics of the gifted is their intensity. Intensity is not a matter of degree but of a different way of experiencing the world: vivid, absorbing, penetrating, encompassing, complex, commanding – a way of being quiveringly alive. Intensity means that they process emotions and thoughts at a much deeper level and as a positive consequence can see patterns others can’t, but also get affected by negative or positive emotions much more deeply. Closeness for these people is therefore often very difficult as it can be very painful physically and emotionally to be close to someone else’s feelings.

HSP and gifted children are at an extremely high risk of being misdiagnosed with a learning or mental disability as when over-stimulated their behaviors reassemble those of autism or ADHD. According to the article Gifted or ADD[32], most people, including most medical professionals, do not realize giftedness is not the same as high achievement and that it is often associated with the following behaviors:
• underachieving
• anger and frustration
• high energy, intensity, fidgeting, impulsivity
• individualistic, nonconforming, stubborn
• disorganization, sloppy, poor handwriting
• forgetful, absentminded, daydreams
• emotional, moody
• low interest in details

Adults often do not realize a child is gifted under the assumption that a gifted child is automatically an overachiever. As a result, many gifted children are being medicated for a brain defect they probably don’t have.

Instead, they may be experiencing what the psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski (1964)[33] intensities related to one of the various type of heightened abilities he identified:

Psychomotor – surplus of energy: rapid speech, pressure for action, restlessness impulsive actions, nervous habits & tics, competitiveness, sleeplessness.

Sensual – sensory and aesthetic pleasure: heightened sensory awareness eg sights, smells, tastes, textures, sounds, appreciation of beautiful objects, music, nature, sensitivity to foods and pollutants, intense dislike of certain clothing, craving for pleasure.

Intellectual – learning, problem solving: curiosity, concentration, theoretical & analytical thinking, questioning, introspection, love of learning and problem solving, moral concern, thinking about personal and social moral values.

Imaginational – vivid imagination: creative & inventive, a rich and active fantasy life, superb visual memory, elaborate dreams, day dreams, love of poetry, music and drama, fears of the unknown, mixing of truth and fantasy, great sense of humour.

Emotional – intensity of feeling: complex emotions, extremes of emotion, empathy with others, sensitivity in relationships, strong memory for feelings, difficulty adjusting to change, fears and anxieties, inhibition, timidity, shyness, self-judgment, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, heightened awareness of injustice and hypocrisy.

Why do gifted people get misdiagnosed?

A first reason is that gifted people become bored easily in settings that average people find tolerable (like school or work). Boredom leads to restlessness, and restlessness leads to all sorts of problems. Fast thought processes can lead not only to boredom but to poor handwriting, errors in simple work, disorganization and sloppiness. Add to this sensory giftedness and a person can become overwhelmed in these settings as well, uncannily ressembling an ADHD bahavior.

A second reason for misdiagnosis stands in that gifted children often go through asynchronous developmental process. Asynchronous development refers to uneven intellectual, physical, and emotional development. In average children, intellectual, physical, and emotional development progresses at about the same rate. That is, the development is in “sync”. However, in gifted children, the development of those areas is out of “sync”. They do not progress at the same rate. Their development in certain areas is so fast that it becomes very slow in others.

A third reason is that if these children are emotionally intense. People often believe that sensitive children are simply being melodramatic. But these children often have an emotional super sensitivity or over excitability and they experience emotions deeper and more intensely than others and they do not know how to regulate them.

Emotionally intense gifted children exhibit a super sensitivity of the nervous system that makes them acutely perceptive and sensitive, more discriminating of external stimuli and more analytical and critical of themselves and others. This accounts for the tendency for young emotionally intense gifted children to be described frequently as “hyperactive” and “distractable”.

Emotional intensity is expressed by the gifted through a wide range of feelings, and attachments. Compassion, heightened sense of responsibility and scrupulous self-examination. While these are normal for the gifted and appear very early in gifted children, they are often mistaken for emotional immaturity rather than as evidence of a rich inner life. Feeling everything more deeply than others do is both painful and frightening and sensitivity to society’s injustice and hypocrisy can lead many emotionally intense gifted children to feel despair and cynicism at very young ages. While these feelings can be frightening to their parents, they can be part of a normal process for the gifted. According to Dabrowski, gifted individuals need to go through process of positive disintegration to grow and evolve. They need to go very deep within themselves, deconstruct their identity in order to transform their selves.

These children are often perfectionists, extremely hard on themselves and often underachievers as they often prefer to not engage rather than not be perfect. And they are also often depressive.

Finally, these children intensity and overexcitability means they often become anxious and/or act out in social settings they are not familiar with or when their sensitivities are triggered. Over-excitability is an expanded awareness of and a heightened capacity to respond to all stimuli such as noise, light, smell, touch, emotions, chemical toxins, etc. The term ‘over-excitability’ conveys the idea that this stimulation of the nervous system is well beyond the usual or average in intensity and duration. As we will see in a following section, this over-exatibility, coupled with a particular temperament type can lead to behaviors resembling AHDH or autism.

The gifted and Sensory Processing Sensitivity

According to the Sensory Processing Disorder foundation[34], research is beginning to indicate that sensory processing “disorder” or sensitivity symptoms occur more frequently in populations of children identified as gifted than within populations that are not.

Paula Jarrard, MS, OTR, a doctoral candidate at Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions, conducted a review of research into this question. Jarrard learned from her review that “as many as one-third of gifted children may exhibit sensory processing disorder features, significantly impacting quality of life.“[35]. As she explains:

The ‘double-edged sword’ of giftedness often bestows, among other features, a global heightened awareness to sensory stimulation, an endowment of amplified mental processing speed and attention capacity, and unusual challenges with frustration, pain, noise, and emotional hypersensitivity“. [36].

Sensual giftedness can lead to sensory processing sensitivity and to over-excitability of the senses. Dabrowski[37] described patterns of over-excitabilities consisting of heightened sensitivity, awareness, and intensity to receive and respond to stimuli. Mendaglio (1995)[38] and Lind (2000)[39] offer similar views. These authors do not describe these over-excitabilities as “disorders,” rather as characteristic features of the exceptionally creative and point to a higher than average sensitivity of its receptors (Dabrowski, 1964 p.7). The unusual sensory reactions are seen as an integral part of the individual to be accommodated and to be worked with. In fact, many of the strategies offered by Lind (2000) for dealing with “over-excitabilities” are similar to sensory integration strategies and can be easily misdiagnosed as a “disorder”. This seems to be particularly true for another subgroup, the highly sensitive children.

Highly Sensitive Children
Highly sensitive people have a nervous system that is more sensitive to subtleties. This means that regular sensory information is processed and analyzed to a greater extent, which contributes to creativity, intuition, sensing implications and attention to detail, but which may also cause quick over-stimulation and over-arousal (Aron, 1996)[40].

These individuals could be said to possess strong “mind sight” as they sense energy and information flow in their body, in other people, in the environment and between elements.   In a sense, they perceive in High Definition, with more detail, depth and clarity. They have intense thinking, emotions and reactions (sensitivities) to stimuli (chemical, sensorial, emotional, social, etc). Finally, they also possess a strong empathic sense. According to T. Howley, HSP are sensorially intense. HSPs are usually very conscientious, gifted with great intelligence, intuition and imagination, but underperform when being watched. HSPs tend to socialize less with others, preferring to process experiences quietly by themselves. This withdrawing from others is perhaps due to their heightened empathy. While empathy is a universal human ability, it is heightened in the case of Highly sensitive people, as Susan Meindl explains in the article “Highly Sensitive People and Emotional Contagion”:

“ Emotional contagion in its most positive form is the basis of the human virtue of empathy. We need to be emotionally in tune with others in order to understand them, get along with them and to function effectively in the human social world.

Highly sensitive people’s finely detailed observational abilities make them more responsive than most to the nuances of other people’s feelings. This sometimes leads them to shy away from crowds since the mass of emotional messages is just too confusing. But even one-on-one relating can be emotionally challenging to a person who reads and responds strongly other’s subtle emotional cues.

Since HSP’s own emotional responses are intense, quick to arise and hard to shake off, they often find themselves getting caught up uncomfortably in other people’s feelings. Being attuned to the rawness of other people’s emotions and even taking them on through emotional contagion can be an unpleasant and aversive experience.”[41]

Metaphorically, while “non-sensitives” people or “neuro-typicals” can not hear one tree falling in the forest, HSPs can hear the cries of all of the trees falling in the forest, constantly. While all HSPs have heightened sensory awareness, each HSPs has particular sensitivities and each has a unique balance of various sensory inputs. Not only do these people “hear” every single tree, they empathize with them as well.

This can make childhood difficult, if not painful, as they may pick up others’ thoughts, feelings, emotions, and moods without knowing where the stimuli is coming from nor how to process the extra information. Until they have reach an age where they can self-regulate, become aware of these capacities and comfortable with their sensitivities, their ability to unconsciously or semi-consciously process environmental subtleties means that highly sensitive children react very strongly to under-arousal or over-arousal. According to Susan Meindl[42], a Montreal based psychologist, stimulation comes in on all sensory channels: sights, sounds, smells, vibrations, touch. HSP’s typically respond strongly and quickly reach their natural level of tolerance in loud, bright or chaotic environments.   Meindl identifies five kinds of over-stimulation HSP struggle with: (1) Chronic environmental overstimulation; (2) Internal bodily stimulation; (3) A rich and stimulating inner life; (4) Interpersonal over-stimulation and (5) Chemically related over-stimulation & depressive responses. A vicious circle, the intersection of these factors may create a “perfect storm” for some HSPs.

One last elements comes into play in how children react to stimuli, their body tenperament,

Introverted Body Temperaments

It is thought that one of the most important differences between introverts and extroverts is the effect social life has on them (Laney, 2005). Introverts tend to be exhausted by a lot of social interaction; they recharge by being alone and need a lot of down time. Whereas extroverts recharge by being in social contact with people and may find being alone tiring. Another important distinction is that introverts value “being” while extroverts value “doing”, this give them very different social status in north American culture.

Here is a helpful description of some of them that I found on the blog parentfromscratch:

“ When they have had a busy, stimulating, or stressful day, they need alone time. Introverted kids need time to process the activities, interactions, conversations, information, and their emotions from the day. This is a giant stress release, and not getting it is treacherous for an introvert’s psyche. (…)

Introverts need to develop a connection with someone before they’ll talk comfortably. There must be a trust that that person will listen, a trust that she’ll understand, a trust that the child will be taken seriously. This leads to being cautious in getting to know new people that look like “shyness” (or rudeness, my addition).

Introverted kids process their feelings internally, they do not wear their emotions on their sleeve. Introverted kids prefer play dates to play groups. One-on-one encounters allow people to get to know each other much more deeply, which is the kind of interaction introverts crave. I would venture to say that the deeper levels of relationship only occur in one-on-one encounters, introvert or not; that it is impossible to truly get to know a person when you’re always in the presence of others. But for introverts, single-friend play dates are less stimulating than being in a large group of activity and are more conducive to meaningful conversation. This is an introvert’s need that balances out their other need for alone time.

Introverted kids enjoy activities that allow their minds to wander. Any opportunity to think, pretend, get creative, solve problems, daydream or otherwise get inside their head is welcome. Great introverted activities include reading, writing, sketching, jump rope, roller skating, fishing, painting, bike rides, gardening, playing catch, swimming, hiking, swinging, climbing trees, puzzles…the list goes on.”[43]

My own experience of my bodily introvert son, has taught me that there are major differences in how introverts operate socially. The difference in their responses to social stimuli is believed to stem from neurochemical balances in the brain. According to brain researchers Stephen Kosslyn and Oliver Koenig, quoted by Laney, acetylcholine and dopamine trigger the nervous system. They are the main link between the brain and the body while functioning at opposite sides of the autonomous nervous system[44]. Dopamine activates in the sympathetic nervous system and acetylcholine operates in the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic system is the fright or flight system while the parasympathetic is the rest and digest system. Studies show that introverted temperaments are dominant on the parasympathetic side of the nervous system, which uses acetylcholine as its main neurotransmitter, the “put on the brakes” system. Extroverts are dominant on the sympathetic system, which uses dopamine as its main neurotransmitter, the “give it gas” system.
These neurotransmitters trigger very different behaviors: “Acetylcholine triggers the brain’s ability to focus and concentrate for long periods of time. It slows down the body when it is awake so the brain can concentrate. (…) Acetylcholine activates another reward system. It’s subtle but very powerful. “[45] This reward system, released when a person concentrates on one element for long periods of time, is powerful for brain dominated by Acetylcholine (introverted temperament) but hardly noticeable by brain governed by dopamine (extroverted temperament). Dopamine on the other hand, controls rewards that promote novelty-seeking behaviors, quick actions, and the urge to move quickly in order to get more of them. A jolt of dopamine to an introvert can cause anxiety and overstimulation.

For introverts, the stages of social development are radically different than those of extroverts. This is an problem in our culture since it promotes socialization at an early age. Often, the early separation from their parent at the age of two happens at a time when they are in need of attachment to their mother. The separation becomes a form of trauma. I experience this with my first son who started having terrible nightmares when we attempted daycare. I ended up removing him from that environment.

Neuroscientist Dr Johnson, a research scientist at the University of Iowa, and other researchers have shown that introverts and extroverts had different amount of blood flowing to different part of the brain: “Extroverts had lower blood flow in the behavioral inhibition system in the frontal lobes, but more activity in the back of the brain, in areas that underlie an intense thirst for sensory and emotional stimuli.“[46] Whereas Dr Johnson found a drastic different in how the brain of introverts functions: “Introverts had higher blood flow in the frontal lobes – home to the system that inhibits behaviors and promotes planning and thinking before acting. “[47]

Interestingly, there seem to be a spectrum of sensory sensitivity and temperaments in gifted children, which lead to either ADHD or Autistic type symptoms when out of sync with what we consider “normal” behaviors. Could it be that behaviors regarded as Autistic or ADHD are related to how introverted and extroverted children deal with imbalanced social, sensory, emotional and/or chemical stimuli? What if ADD and ADHD marks the intense under-sensorial and emotional stimulation of children with a dominant extroverted nature or a sensory seeker? And what if autism marks the intense painful chemical, emotional, sensorial stimulation of sensory under-responsiveness of defensiveness to the point of shutting down?

Having children whose behaviors could easily be labeled as ADHD and autism, I have observed that what can seem to be drastically different behaviors appear to correspond to a similar “broad” environmental attention ability and sensitivity. The main difference in behaviors in my own children seems to stand from two elements. First, the dominant body temperament, an introverted child or adult will withdraw into an internal world as they tend to live in their head whereas extroverts physically become hyperactive as they tend to exist much more in their body. Second,a hypo (underwhelming) or hyper (overwhelming) reaction to sensory and chemical input will translate the input as a pleasurable experience when hypo-sensitive case or painful when hyper-sensitive to it.

In both cases, they hyper focus to reduce sensory input, but the resulting behavior varies greatly depending on the dominant sensory temperament. One will either act out in the case of an extrovert or withdraw for an introvert in accordance to certain sensory inputs. But I have noticed that my children are not introverted or extroverted. They seem to have some of both traits that come out with different level of comfort in different situations. The extroversion comes out when one is in a new environment and needs to explore, for the other one it is the reverse, he feels safe when he knows the environment extremely well. The issue has become finding the triggers of their over-excitability.

Looking at the characteristics of these different groups, it became obvious to me that these categories identify varying forms of perceptions, or advanced forms of broad attention, and should be understood as forms of intelligences. What if the narrow and broad attention of the brain we examined in chapter 2 is not just about mental processes, but also intrinsically tied to the senses? What if there exist ranges of sensory processing sensitivities that correspond to narrow and broad attentions abilities within the senses? Let’s just think of sight, we have narrow and far sightedness, why wouldn’t there be the same phenomenon in all senses? I was glad to find out that indeed, alternate forms of sensing and attention that humans call upon have already been related to alternate forms of intelligence (Gardner & Hatch, 1989).

Attention spectrum as part of an Intelligence spectrum

Howard Gardner and Thomas Hatch[48] identified nine types of intelligence that reflect extra “sensitivities” to the world: Naturalist Intelligence, Musical Intelligence, Logical-Mathematical Intelligence (Number/Reasoning Smart), Existential Intelligence, Interpersonal Intelligence (people Smart), Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence (“Body Smart”), Linguistic Intelligence (Word Smart), Intra-personal Intelligence (Self Smart”), Spatial Intelligence (“Picture Smart”).

How many of these do we address in formal education? The ones that tend to relate to the left hemisphere of our brain: music, logic, linguistic and minimally body and spatial intelligence. The other types are much more holistic and tend to be ignored in our curricula.

One of these intelligences that intrigue me is the Naturalist Intelligence since it designates the human ability to discriminate among living things (plants, animals) as well as sensitivity to other features of the natural world (such as clouds, rock configurations). HSPs are more physiologically built to read these features. HSPs hear the noise of nature, the stuff that glues the sky together, the “empty” space, which is full of nuances and signs… This is most likely the reason a large number of HSP thrive in the arts, healing and teaching/coaching professions. They sense and understand poetic space and hear the hidden codes of the universe. Fluid Time is also essential to this harmony. When time is fluid, as it is in nature, all activities are intertwined and exist as one, within the environment. We move in sync within the world using our broad sensory attention to understand our existence. Whereas when space and time have been colonized, separated and compartmentalized, every activity requires a lot more energy and focus and the overworking of the senses becomes a sort of trauma. How impossible it must be for a child to feel safe in classrooms given that their strengths are seen as disabilities.

Interpersonal Intelligence is also an important aspect of HSPs ways of being, and suggests that the emotional contagion and empathy encountered by HSP can be considered a form of intelligence.

I am beginning to understand that during their development, all children operate within an animist perception of the world. But for gifted and highly sensitive chilcren , every phenomenon that draws their attention is perceived, or felt, to be at least potentially animate: Each perceived thing having its own rhythm and style, its own interior animation. Everything moving — although, clearly, some things move much slower than other things, like the mountains, or the ground underfoot.This broad attention is in direct conflict with the narrow attention that is often expected of them in their family and school life and in their future workplaces. For highly sensitive children, these ways of perceive forms the primary mode of self-awareness, as we will see in chapter 5.

Heightened Sensory Processing as forms of intelligence?

Maybe the misdiagnoses between ADHD, Autism, HSP, Giftedness etc, exist because they all are part of the same spectrum of sensory processing intelligence, each representing different coping and behavioral reactions to toxic levels of arousal from environmental, sensory, social, cognitive and emotional experiences.

Dr. T. Rowley, in the article “multi-sensory children”, posits that autistic and ADHD labeled children possess heightened multi-sensory abilities. In other words, that they gather information, experience life, and/or express themselves through more than five senses and/or through multiple senses with great intensity. She believes that they are receiving pathologized labels because they are caught in a system that cannot see or recognize them as gifted or value their differences. She offers these definitions of how they perceive the world, which can be helpful in understanding what they are experiencing:

Autism: There is a spectrum of autism, so no description captures all children under this diagnostic label. However, many of these children live in an inside out world, relating less to the outside physical world and more to the one that they are experiencing within. And ironically, their inside world is often outside their body. They are often spiritually connected in a way that most of us do not experience.

Their vibration is very high and touches into physical reality every so often, but they do not typically use their five senses to relate to others in the three dimensional world. Finding ways to effectively communicate with these children is important. They may have as many things to teach us about the world of Spirit as we have to teach them about the physical world.

Practitioners who are highly conscious and can contact these children telepathically make the most progress in understanding the child and in helping the child’s awareness and development in a three dimensional world. Decreasing the stimuli in their environment on all levels supports them. Meditating in the presence of the children and honoring the richness of silence may also help.”[49]

Dr. Rowley is not alone. Some higher functioning people with autism like to think of autism as a different way of thinking, such as Temple Grandin who coined the idea of high functioning austistic people as “pattern thinkers”. Others are looking at autistic characteristics as positive traits of an alternate brain, and developing alternate theories of development that no longer compares them to neuro-typical models, as exemplified by Autistic blogger Jason Horsley’s (2013) words:

“ when it comes to learning neurotypical social language, autistics may be over-qualified for the task. (…) If autists’ brains are more complex, then it makes perfect sense that they would be slower to develop, because they would have a larger and more-far-reaching “mapping process” to complete before they could engage with their environment ”

He continues to define some of these more-far-reaching mapping processes using other autistic experiences:

“Unnaturally” enhanced senses are so common to the autistic experience that they may even be the norm.[50], [51] More provocatively, in Soon Will Come The Light (1994), Thomas McKean describes an ability to sense other people’s emotions. “It is rare that I know what anyone is actually thinking, but concurrent emotions are very common.” McKean adds that “the link is much stronger if [he is] actually touching the person.” In her first book, Nobody Nowhere (1992), autistic Donna Williams describes her experiences of “day dreams” that she later verifies to be accurate visions of other people’s behavior.


In “The beautiful otherness of the autistic mind,” Francesca Happé and Uta Frith write that autists “have privileged access to raw forms of information, not normally accessible, that may give a new and more veridical perceptual insight, in contrast to expectation-biased interpretations. . . . [My emphasis] One possibility is that all people with autism have the potential to develop savant skills, and that chances of exposure and opportunity play a large part in determining outcome.”[i] In other words, the degree to which autistic people are provided with an environment conducive to the development of their brains and perceptual faculties would determine their ability to function as Nature intended them to do so — in stark contrast to what (neuro-typical) society demands of them.”

Similarly, researchers are beginning to think that autism is indeed a different way of thinking, not a disease. Scientists from the University of Montreal have demonstrated that those on the autism spectrum use their brains differently and that while specific areas are busier, other brain areas are less so. In the article “Maximising the brain potential of those with autism”, Dr Laurent Mottron from the University of Montreal explains: “The natural tendency is to think that autism is a form of disorganization. Here, what we see is that it is a reorganisation of the brain.”  This reorganization is not a disability but in my mind the emergence of an evolutionary trait. Like parents of these children, Dr Mottron believes that:

“Instead of trying to cure autism, perhaps we should be looking at ways to help those who think differently to develop ways of interacting within their community and to maximize their potential. And the areas of their brains which are not normally so active could be stimulated.“ (Montron, 2012).

As for ADHD symptoms, Dr. Rowley offers this definition:

“ADHD: These children are often highly creative and relate to life in holographic ways, resulting in less linear, logical, sequential brain access. “A picture speaks a thousand words”, and these children may be better at communicating through art or theater than linear language. Also, competition means less in a holographic, un-sequenced world, so they may be less inclined to want to compete. ADHD children are more inside their bodies than those with autism.

These children often notice and can take in more sensory data than others. This includes light, sound, vibration, verbal tones, and non-verbal cues, to name several. While they are sensitive to more stimuli, these children and even adolescents may not have the brain function developed to process this overload of sensory data until their mid-twenties. So they can be overwhelmed more quickly than others. Physical problems, such as anxiety, panic, stomach aches, etc. may result as they try to take on the challenge of digesting their multi-sensory experience. They may have a harder time organizing material, distinguishing big picture from detail, and determining what information is most important. There may be a capacity to be sequential, but it may not be a common version of logical. Their nervous system may be vibrating faster than the rest of their body can comfortably contain.

Their energy and gift often leads them to be more comfortable in expansive and visionary roles than in routine or operational ones. For these children, helping them find and practice their energetic and physical relationship to the ground and the boundaries of their body is very helpful. It is also beneficial to help them with mental boundaries and structures in their thinking.”[52]

People labeled with ADHD “may instead be our most creative individuals, our most extraordinary thinkers, our most brilliant inventors and pioneers,” writes Thom Hartmann in his 2003 book The Edison Gene: ADHD and the Gift of the Hunter Child. He posits that people with ADHD may carry genetically coded abilities that once were, and may still be, necessary for human survival and that contribute richness to the culture.

Hartmann believes that the creativity, impulsiveness, and distractibility that are characteristic of ADHD are not signs of a disorder at all, but instead are components of a highly adaptive skill set utilized by our hunting and gathering ancestors who needed broad attention skills to survive. These characteristics have been critical to the survival and development of our modern civilization and will be vital as humanity faces new challenges in the future.

Imagine how overwhelming modern life is to someone whose sensory, emotional and cognitive systems are intense, calibrated to be able to perceive the minutest change in magnetic resonance, airflows and other invisible energy forces but also emotions in others. If these children grow up with rules and boundaries that emphasize rationality, neglecting emotional and sensory experiences, these multi sensory gifted children can become anxious, depressed, alienated, socially inept or emotionally blocked when having to repressed the emotions and behaviors triggered by their senses.

Perhaps this explains why we exist in a time of heightened addiction. A majority of us use many types of distractions to avoid thinking about the traumas we have experiences, are experiencing and witness in others. Some are addicted to information, dreams, sex, social interactions, sports, food, shopping, substances and/or the media. Our society is filled with temptations to keep us amused, entertained, hyper-focused or feeling satisfied by an experience we have purchased. This renders the common western life highly toxic and without some drastic changes in what we value, healing ourselves and our children will remain a very difficult, if not impossible, task.

For people whose identity is created outside the boundaries of the body, it seems plausible that sensory processing sensitivities can cause so much pain that they shut down the input and output to insure that the self does not destruct. And if the stimuli continue, do so forever. Imagine living a life where everything is an aggression on your senses but also your sense of self. Children start having focus issues, some becoming hypo-sensitive other hyper-sensitive and maybe, just maybe, eventually rewiring their brains and nervous systems to cope, adhd or autism alike?

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

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

Nutrition and Attention

Nutrition is an important part of a healthy brain. And most of us are unaware of the way in which our nutrition affects our mood. Dr Hilary Jones wrote in the article: “ Your food influences your mood: The second brain residing in our stomachs” that a shocking 45% of us suffer food intolerance. Food intolerance is a much more common problem than food allergy and one of the most harmful symptoms can be low mood and many know that mood can significantly improve after altering a diet.[53]

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

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

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

“In a study conducted by Dr. Timothy Buie, a pediatric gastroenterologist from Harvard/Mass General hospital, forty-six patients between the ages of 5 and 31 were selected for inclusion in a study based on a diagnosis placing them in the category of the autism spectrum disorders, ADD and ADHD. Their diets were supplemented with a dietary enzyme formulation. The results: The enzyme formula beneficially and safely affected all thirteen of the parameter measured. Improvements ranged from 50-90% depending on the parameters measured. The enzyme was effective at improving the symptoms such as socialization, hyperactivity, attention, eye contact, comprehension and compulsions.”[54]

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

In the article “Think Twice: How the Gut’s “Second Brain” Influences Mood and Well-Being”, Adam Hadhazy explains how serotonin seeping from the second brain might even play some part in autism, the developmental disorder often first noticed in early childhood. Gershon has discovered that the same genes involved in synapse formation between neurons in the brain are involved in the alimentary synapse formation. “If these genes are affected in autism,” he says, “it could explain why so many kids with autism have GI motor abnormalities” in addition to elevated levels of gut-produced serotonin in their blood”. (Scientific American, 2010)[55]

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

Attention and Emotional Instability

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

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

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

  • Research has found that neurons in the brain of a chronically stressed individual may have fewer and shorter dendrites (pathways for sending information). This deficiency impairs communication with other dendrites, reducing the brain’s ability to process information effectively (Allen & Klein, p.20).”[56]

Let’s have a look at some of the symptoms associated with trauma in children. According to the National Child Traumatic Network [57]:

“ A child with a complex trauma history may be easily triggered or “set off” and is more likely to react very intensely.  The child may struggle with self-regulation (i.e., knowing how to calm down) and may lack impulse control or the ability to think through consequences before acting.  (…) If a child dissociates often, this will also affect behavior. Such a child may seem “spacey”, detached, distant, or out of touch with reality”[58]

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

“ Children with complex trauma histories may have problems thinking clearly, reasoning, or problem solving. They may be unable to plan ahead, anticipate the future, and act accordingly. When children grow up under conditions of constant threat, all their internal resources go toward survival. When their bodies and minds have learned to be in chronic stress response mode, they may have trouble thinking a problem through calmly and considering multiple alternatives. They may find it hard to acquire new skills or take in new information. They may struggle with sustaining attention or curiosity or be distracted by reactions to trauma reminders. They may show deficits in language development and abstract reasoning skills. Many children who have experienced complex trauma have learning difficulties that may require support in the academic environment.”[59]

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

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

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

Behavior is regulated by the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain acts as CEO, the Chief Executive Officer, and controls all higher brain functions such as impulse control, emotional regulation, reasoning, judgment, decision making, planning and problem solving. Research by neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux at New York University, determined that when a threat is perceived, the amygdala “hijacks” the slower responding CEO. This puts the fast-acting survival brain in charge, and momentarily overwhelms rational thought. When our survival brain is in charge, we impulsively react with defensive behaviors. These limited behaviors are primarily shaped by old patterns based on past experiences that have caused pain or fear. When the survival brain is in charge a person may react aggressively, fight, refuse to cooperate, throw a temper tantrum, withdraw, or space-out (Goleman, pp. 17-26). “[60]

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

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

Many studies have confirmed that both working memory and long-term memory are inhibited by stress. Working memory is a term for the “capacity of attention that holds in mind the facts essential for completing a given task or problem. Stress sabotages the ability of the prefrontal lobe to maintain working memory” (Goleman, p.27). That’s why a stressed adult may have difficulty remembering her address and a stressed child may have difficulty remembering the words on her spelling test. Research has shown that chronically high cortisol levels released during stress can lead to the death of brain cells in the hippocampus (located in the limbic system), which is critical to forming long term memories (Allen & Klein, p.20).”[61]

Attention and the senses: Sensory over and Underload

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

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

When in a bright, noisy environment, like a crowded Wal-Mart, the sensory stimulation seems to build up. It is almost like water filling up a bucket. It reaches the top and then spills all over the floor. That is what I feel like, I get swamped by the lights and noise and bustle and then my brain shuts down. Everything seems to come from the end of a long tunnel. I can’t make out sounds, sights barely make any sense. I end up barely aware of anything and am usually only interested in getting away. I need somewhere quiet and familiar. The thoughts that I do remember passing through my head are so illogical and not something that I would even consider doing normally. That is one of my biggest fears that I will act on one of those thoughts when overwhelmed.”[62]

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

” feeling overstimulated is an unpleasant and aversive experience. Highly sensitive individuals suffer from overstimulation sooner and more often than many other people and may respond to chronic overstimulation by developing depression”[63].

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

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

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

Sometimes we collapse physically instead and experience psychosomatic or stress-based ailments. We may become hyper-aware and concerned about bodily pains because they provide an acceptable reason to retreat from unpleasant overstimulation.”[64]

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

“UT Dallas researchers recently demonstrated how nerve stimulation paired with specific experiences, such as movements or sounds, can reorganize the brain. This technology could lead to new treatments for autism and other disorders.(…) If subsequent studies confirm the UT Dallas findings, human patients may have access to more efficient therapies that are minimally invasive and avoid long-term use of drugs.”[65]

Conclusion: These Abilities Are Not Disabilities

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

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

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


[1]Dr. Laney-Olsen, Marti (2005). The Hidden Gifts of the Introvert Child. Workman Publishing Company; 1 edition. P. 10.

[2]Graham, Linda J. (2007) Countering the ADHD epidemic : a question of ethics? Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood,8(2), pp. 166-169.

[3]Koerth-Baker, Maggie (2013). The Not So Hidden Cause behind the ADHD Epidemic. New York Times, October 15, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/20/magazine/the-not-so-hidden-cause-behind-the-adhd-epidemic.html?pagewanted=3&_r=0

[4] Mann, Anne (2001). “Setting The Frame Of The ADHD Epidemic: Childhood Under the New Capitalism”. Public Seminar, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne. Retrieved from: http://napp.org.au/issues.html

[5]Bell, A.S (2010). A Critical Review of ADHD Diagnostic Criteria: What to Address in the DSM-V. Journal of Attention Disorders OnlineFirst, published on April 23, 2010. XX(X) 1–8. SAGE Publications

[6]Woo, S. M., & Keatinge, C. (2008). Diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders across the lifespan. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

[7]American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5), Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association

[8] ADHD, Combined Type (combined inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive). People with combined ADHD show characteristics of all three symptoms. This is the most common type of ADHD. Criteria include the inability to pay attention to activities and instructions, difficulty listening and staying organized, and being forgetful and often losing things. Other criteria are impulsive behaviors like speaking out inappropriately, interrupting others, talking excessively, the inability to sit still, and fidgeting.

ADHD, Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Type. People with this type of ADHD show only symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity, but do not have problems with inattention. This is the least common type of ADHD. Criteria include hyperactive behaviors like being overly active physically (can’t sit still, always running around), talking excessively, frequent fidgeting, and impulsive behaviors like the inability to wait their turn, speaking out inappropriately, and interrupting others’ conversations or activities.

ADHD, Predominantly Inattentive Type (formerly called ADD or attention deficit disorder). People with this type of ADHD don’t have any symptoms of impulsive or hyperactive behaviors, but have difficulty paying attention. This is the most common type of ADHD in girls. Criteria are limited to symptoms of inattention, like carelessness and forgetfulness in daily activities, disorganization, not listening, and difficulty following instructions or completing activities.

[9] Types of ADHD: Amen’s Types:

Type 1 – Classic ADD. This type includes symptoms of inattention, impulsivity, hyperactivity, and restlessness.

Type 2 – Inattentive ADD. Characteristics include inattention, acting “spacey,” laziness, seeming lack of intelligence, lack of motivation, and unenergetic. This type tends to be diagnosed in older children or adults, and most often in girls.

Type 3 – Overfocused ADD. Symptoms include inattention, frequent worrying, difficulty changing attention to another task, obsession with negative behaviors and thinking, resistance to change, and frequent arguing.

Type 4 – Temporal Lobe ADD. People with this type are often quick tempered, have anxiety, show physical symptoms like stomach pain or headaches, and have difficulty remembering things. People with type 4 also tend to experience trouble reading.

Type 5 – Limbic ADD. Includes symptoms of inattention, as well as signs of depression like insomnia, lack of appetite, problems with self-esteem, lack of energy, and frequent sadness. People with type 5 also tend to be socially isolated.

Type 6 – Ring of Fire ADD. Characteristics include symptoms of inattention, anger and temper problems, talking a lot, sensitivity to lights and sounds, and being resistant to change.

Type 7 – Anxious ADD. Characteristics include inattentiveness, distractability, disorganization, anxiety, tension, nervousness, a tendency to predict the worst, freezing in test taking situations, and a tendency toward social anxiety. People with this type are prone to experience the physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches and gastrointestinal problems.

[10]Wilson, Laurence (2009).Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders. Retrieved from: http://drlwilson.com/articles/attention_deficit.htm


[12] http://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism

[13] Gnaulati, Enrico (2013). Back to Normal: Why Ordinary Childhood Behavior Is Mistaken for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder.Beacon Press.

[14] Goldberg, Michael J. (2011). The Myth of Autism: How a Misunderstood Epidemic Is Destroying our Children. Skyhorse Publishing

[15] Manning-Schaffel, Vivian (2008). The Phantom Menace: Do 1 in 20 kids really have Sensory Processing Disorder?” Babble.com. downloaded from: http://www.babble.com/kid/children-sensory-processing-disorder-autism-symptoms-therapy/

[16]Bunim, Julinana (2013). Breakthrough Study Reveals Biological Basis for Sensory Processing Disorders in Kids. University of California, San Francisco. July 09, 2013. Retrieved from http://www.ucsf.edu/news/2013/07/107316/breakthrough-study-reveals-biological-basis-sensory-processing-disorders-kidsi

[17] University of Virginia Health System Blog (2012). Sensory Processing Disorder: Ambiguous but Real. Posted December 11, 2012


[18] Belsky, Jay and Pluess, Michael (2009). Beyond Diathesis Stress: Differential Susceptibility to Environmental Influences. American Psychological Association. Psychological Bulletin 2009, Vol. 135, No. 6, 885–908.

[19]Dobbs, David (2009). “The Science of Success” in The Atlantic Magazine. Retreaved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/print/2009/12/the-science-of-success/307761/

[20] David Bruser, David, and Bailey, Andrew (2012). “ADHD drugs are suspected of hurting Canadian kids”. Toronto Star, Published Wed Sep 26 2012. Retrieved from http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2012/09/26/adhd_drugs_suspected_of_hurting_canadian_kids.html

[21] David Bruser, David, and Bailey, Andrew (2012). “ADHD drugs are suspected of hurting Canadian kids”. Toronto Star, Published Wed Sep 26 2012. Retrieved fro http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2012/09/26/adhd_drugs_suspected_of_hurting_canadian_kids.html

[22] David Bruser, David, and Bailey, Andrew (2012). “ADHD drugs are suspected of hurting Canadian kids”. Toronto Star, Published Wed Sep 26 2012. Retrieved fro http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2012/09/26/adhd_drugs_suspected_of_hurting_canadian_kids.html

[23] University of Virginia Health System Blog (2012). Sensory Processing Disorder: Ambiguous but Real. Posted December 11, 2012. Retrieved from: http://uvahealth.com/blog/2012/12/11/sensory-processing-disorder-ambiguous-but-real/

[24] University of Virginia Health System Blog (2012). Sensory Processing Disorder: Ambiguous but Real. Posted December 11, 2012. Retrieved from: http://uvahealth.com/blog/2012/12/11/sensory-processing-disorder-ambiguous-but-real/

[25] Morris, Michelle (2007). ADHD… Is it? Or isn’t it? SPD Support website. http://spdsupport.org/articles/8-spd-or-adhd.shtml

[26] Morris, Michelle (2007). ADHD… Is it? Or isn’t it? SPD Support website. http://spdsupport.org/articles/8-spd-or-adhd.shtml

[27] http://www.cheo.on.ca/uploads/Sensory Processing/Sensory Processing ENG.pdf

[28] Cronin, A.F. (2002). Asynchronous development and sensory integration intervention in the gifted and talented population.Davidson Institute for Talent Development.

[29]The Columbus Group, 1991, cited by Martha Morelock, “Giftedness: The View from Within”, in Understanding Our Gifted, January 1992.

[30] Dabrowski, K. (1967). Personality-shaping through positive disintegration. Boston: Little Brown & Co.

[31] Dabrowski, K. (1967). The Theory of Positive Disintegration. In O. H. Mowrer, Morality and mental health (pp. 152-165). Chicago: Rand McNally. [A reprint of pages 1-32 of Positive Disintegration (1964)].

[32]Gallagher, Teresa (no date) Gifted or ADD? In Born to Explore! The other side of ADD. Retrieved from: http://borntoexplore.org/gifted.htm

[33] Dąbrowski, K. (1964). Positive Disintegration. Boston, Mass.: Little Brown.

[34] Jarrard, Paula (2008). Sensory Issues in Gifted Children: Synthesis of the Literature. Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions, March, 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.spdfoundation.net/pdf/SensoryissuesinGiftedChildren.pdf‎

[35] Jarrard, Paula (2008). Sensory Issues in Gifted Children: Synthesis of the Literature. Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions, March, 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.spdfoundation.net/pdf/SensoryissuesinGiftedChildren.pdf‎

[36] Jarrard, Paula (2008). Sensory Issues in Gifted Children: Synthesis of the Literature. Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions, March, 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.spdfoundation.net/pdf/SensoryissuesinGiftedChildren.pdf‎

[37] Dąbrowski, K. (1964). Positive Disintegration. Boston, Mass.: Little Brown.

[38] Sal Mendaglio (1995): Sensitivity among gifted persons: A multi-faceted perspective, Roeper Review, 17:3, 169-172

[39] Lind, S. Overexcitability and the highly gifted child. The Communicator California Association for the Gifted Vol. 31, No. 4. Fall 2000. Retrieved at: http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/Articles_id_10102.aspx

[40] Aron, E.N. (2006). “The Clinical Implications of Jungs Concept of Sensitiveness”. Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice 8: 11–43.

[41] Meindl , Susan (2011)Highly Sensitive People and Emotional Contagion. Ezine Articles. Retrieved from: http://EzineArticles.com/6750494

[42] Meindl, Susan (2011).Highly Sensitive People and Depression: Overstimulation May Lead to Depression. Ezines Articles. Retrieved from:


[43]Dr. Laney-Olsen, Marti (2005). The Hidden Gifts of the Introvert Child. Workman Publishing Company; 1 edition. P. 10.

[44]According to the Dorland’s Medical Dictionary, the autonomous nervous system is the part of the peripheral nervous system that acts as a control system functioning largely below the level of consciousness, and controls visceral functions.

[45]Dr. Laney-Olsen, Marti (2005). The Hidden Gifts of the Introvert Child. Workman Publishing Company; 1 edition. P. x.

[46]Johnson, Debra, L., Wiebe, John, S., Gold, Sherri M., Andreasen, Nancy, C. , Hichwa, Richard D. , Watkins, Leonard, G. and Boles Ponto, Laura L. (1999). Cerebral Blood Flow and Personality: A Positron Emission Tomography Study. American Journal of Psychiatry 1999; 156:252–257. Retrieved at: http://journals.psychiatryonline.org/data/Journals/AJP/3697/252.pdf

[47]Johnson, Debra, L., Wiebe, John, S., Gold, Sherri M., Andreasen, Nancy, C. , Hichwa, Richard D. , Watkins, Leonard, G. and Boles Ponto, Laura L. (1999). Cerebral Blood Flow and Personality: A Positron Emission Tomography Study. American Journal of Psychiatry 1999; 156:252–257. Retrieved at: http://journals.psychiatryonline.org/data/Journals/AJP/3697/252.pdf

[48] Gardner, Howard and Hatch, Thomas (2009). Multiple Intelligences Go to School: Educational Implications of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Educational Researcher, Vol. 18, No. 8 (Nov., 1989), pp. 4-10. American Educational Research Association. Retreived from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1176460

[49]Rowley, Therese (no date). Multi-sensory children. Retrieve at: http://media.wix.com/ugd/910f0f_cf1b8c409514f89478ec7e601d4d5e7f.pdf

[50]“In The Sound of a Miracle, Georgie Stehli described the hyper-acute hearing that explained her sleeping difficulties. At night she could hear her own body functions; the sound of her heart beating, the blood running in her veins, etc. This phenomena was reported by several in our survey as well. The constant noise from their own bodies was described as a terrible distraction that was often the cause of some their behaviors.”

[51]The piece adds, “There is general agreement that savant skills can be found in people who are not autistic. An open question is whether such individuals share the cognitive characteristic of bias for superior featural processing. If ‘eye for detail’ is an important predisposing factor in talent, regardless of autism, this might perhaps help to redirect the trend for ‘Asperger spotting’ in geniuses current or long dead: instead this theory suggests that it is one or more of the cognitive biases/abilities characteristic of ASD, rather than the diagnosis itself, that is linked to special abilities and could usefully be identified in well-known individuals, from Newton to Bill Gates.”

[52]Rowley, Therese (no date). Multi-sensory children. Retrieve at: http://media.wix.com/ugd/910f0f_cf1b8c409514f89478ec7e601d4d5e7f.pdf

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

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

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








[63] Meindl, Susan (2011).Highly Sensitive People and Depression: Overstimulation May Lead to Depression.Ezines Articles. Retrieved from:


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





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