A gifted individual is a quick and clever thinker, who is able to deal with complex matters. Autonomous, curious and passionate. A sensitive and emotionally rich person, living intensely. He or she enjoys being creative. -definition of giftedness written by the Netherlands Study on Giftedness in Adults

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Living with Sensory Intensity

This is the first in a series on Dabrowsky's five over-excitabilities - sensual OE.

We spent the first night of the kidlet's life with all the lights on. All night. Daddy and Mommy wanted to sleep, but the kidlet screamed as soon as the lights went off. Being new parents, at first we struggled to figure out what was wrong - does he need his diaper changed? Is he hungry? The crying would stop as soon as we turned the lights on to check - and then it would start up again immediately when the lights went out. I think we checked his diaper about three times and tried to feed him twice before we put it together (we were a bit tired already) - the cries were only when he couldn't see what was going on around him. 

And that was our introduction to sensory intensity. It is one of the hallmarks of Dabrowsky's Over Excitabilities in gifted children - experiencing the world through the five senses in a hyper-aroused state. The kidlet has been diagnosed with sensory processing challenges - especially visual, auditory, interoception and proprioception. (Never heard of those last two? Interoception is our sense of where our bodies are in space. Kids with understimulation or overstimulation of interoception will run into things, drop things, be unaware of their personal space. Proprioception is pressure on and inside the joints - the kidlet expresses his need for proprioceptive input by running, jumping, climbing.) 

As he grew older, the kidlet continued to need lots of sensory input. As a baby he cried a lot, especially if he was put down or held in a way he couldn't see out. Breastfeeding was painful (especially after he got his first tooth), because he was constantly looking away from me to see what was going on out there - and trying to take the nipple with him. I had to feed him in a quiet room with the door closed. He was interested in everything. Being our only child, we didn't realize how different this was from other kids until he got to preschool age.

I started learning about hyper-sensitivity when the kidlet was 3 or 4. I was reading a book on spirited children, and it talked about how these kids would see and hear things most people could not. It started to click for me after a particularly horrible restaurant experience. The kidlet hadn't taken his afternoon nap that day, grandparents from out of state had arrived in late afternoon, and we were late having dinner. We went out to a restaurant, and he proceeded to have a complete meltdown in the restaurant after the food he ordered (macaroni and cheese) wasn't exactly what he expected (no bright yellow cheese like in the box). He and I waited in the car while the grandparents and daddy finished their meal. While we were sitting in the hot car - doors and windows wide open, in a large parking lot full of cars and motion - the kidlet asked me, "what's that sound?" I didn't hear anything so I asked him to describe it to me. He said it was "ticking." I listened closely, and finally picked up the faint click of a car motor cooling from five rows away. 

On the other hand, when kidlet got to school he had a very hard time managing all the sensory input he was getting. During assemblies, he would curl up into a ball and rock himself, cover his ears, and cry. In the classroom, his teacher put him at the back of the room (because of his psycho-motor intensity - constant motion!! Another blog about that one later), but he couldn't concentrate because he saw every movement, and heard every scratch of a pencil on paper in the room, and every bird's chirps outside (where is it?), and... oops someone left a ball out in the bushes after recess. He still refuses to use a pencil because he doesn't like the sound of it or the feel it has rubbing against the page. 

When he gets excited (especially when guests come to our house), he runs in circles. That's proprioceptive need, reacting with his psycho-motor intensity, mixing with the emotional intensity of meeting someone new. When he's feeling anxious or angry, he needs tight hugs (interoception). That seems to help him recover his sense of where he is - to get more grounded within himself. 

To me it's a chicken-or-egg thing - is this truly a 2e-type diagnosis of sensory processing disorder? Or is it strictly the high intensity we see in everything he does due to giftedness and OE? I guess it doesn't really matter - he has been helped to learn coping skills through occupational therapy, and we start seeing signs of over- (or under-) stimulation early enough to avoid the huge meltdowns - most of the time. He competes against himself in martial arts, and we play tennis together (so he can "whack" things) - both great ways to gratify the need for proprioceptive input. He's learned to pick up a book when he's getting overstimulated, and if he is in a group of children that gets too loud for him, he will isolate himself and play quietly with Legos until it is time to go home. 


  1. Dealing with that very question ourselves. Is DS just super-sensitive to everything around him, to the point he can't concentrate and it's sensory overload, or does he fit into the sensory processing or ADHD criteria? Just some more fun stuff on the journey!

  2. We're dealing with much the same issues. I too pulled my child out of first grade and am homeschooling while taking him to OT once a week for SPD (or is it OE???).

  3. Wow, what an insight! We have been dealing with these issues at school with our little one. My child has always been very interested in everything, very active and participated in a weekly class for gifted preschoolers. However, she is underperforming at school and unable to concetrate on the task. According to the teacher this is due to being "extremely easily distracted by anything and everything". How do you keep such a child in main stream education?

  4. I think it depends on the child. If you can find a counselor/therapist who knows giftedness, that's your best bet (but be sure they really know giftedness!). They will be able to help you determine if your child has an attention problem, such as ADHD/ADD, or a sensory problem like SPD, or if it's your child's OEs that are causing such problems. I can only say for us that the problem is boredom - even in gifted programs that focus on acceleration, it's not enough for him. I will focus on some of this in later posts (sorry - I've just started blogging about this subject and can't do everything all at once).

    It could be extremely helpful if you can find a situation in which your child is fully engaged at her top performance level (as we did taking ours to a college biology course) and see if the behaviors manifest there, also. If they do, it's probably an ADD/ADHD issue. That's my mommy-opinion, of course - I am not a professional.

    But in any case, if your child is being over-stimulated by her environment, an occupational therapist can give her tools to help her calm herself, give you insights into modulation and moderation - all of which will help her in school.

    For us, mainstream education has not been an option since we gave up on the gifted program in our area.

    Check out www.spdbloggernetwork.com for information on sensory processing disorders and links to families who are struggling with similar issues.

  5. I don't have a child nor am I one anymore. Your post really resonated with me a lot. I'm 26 years old and considered exceptionally gifted, and I also have massive sensory issues. Have you noticed his sensory traits give him more allergies than normal? I'm allergic to everything. I'm gluten-intolerant, hypoglycemic and lactose intolerant. I'm also very chemically sensitive.

    The post on your child completely brought me back to a lot of moments I've had throughout my life. Such as when he heard the car engine clicking in the parking lot, or getting distracted because he's noticing every single thing. I cannot even watch a movie where they are rocking in a boat or I'll get motion sickness. I hear everything too. I cannot look at anything with too much visual noise either. I'm a musician and I've noticed my sensory issues affect every single thing I create... the musical arrangements have to be "clean" or it short circuits my brain, and my websites have to be visually "clean" or my brain short circuits. I wouldn't change it for the world though, its given me a really different sound and look to my image.

    I have no idea if its related to the giftedness or not. I think they are two separate traits. My mother has average intelligence and she has some of the similar things I do... chemically sensitive, has to sleep in total darkness, cannot sleep unless really heavy blankets are on her, etc. I think they are just further intensified the higher up the gifted scale a person goes, and from what it sounds like your "kid let" is WAY up there. :)

  6. Hi Ashley! Thank you for your comment... I'm so glad that you see how your heightened sensitivity has been important in making you the person you are - it's so true that those things are so built into our person we can't separate them out. Embrace your uniqueness!

    I have heard that gifted individuals have a higher incidence of allergies (some severe) and asthma. The kidlet does not seem to have allergies, except possibly some seasonal ones. But we can't get him tested because needles freak him out something amazing - it's been known to take 6 adults (including me and five pediatric nurses/phlebotomists) to hold him down just for a blood draw.

  7. Don't get me started on throat swabs! We have to hold her down for those too. My 11-year old DD is twice exceptional and also has sensory sensitivities. I will say that she has gotten much better at coping with her sensitivities and advocating for herself when needed.