What is neurodiversity?
Approximately 30% of the population are considered to be neurodiverse, with the majority having a diagnosis of an ‘autistic spectrum condition’, ADHD or Sensory Processing Disorder.
Being neurodiverse refers to the idea that not all brains work in the same way and if you are neurodiverse your brain works differently to someone who is neurotypical i.e. the 70% majority. Of course not everyone who is neurodiverse has a diagnosis or label, particularly if you experience high sensitivity, also known as being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).
Where does High Sensitivity fit within neurodiversity?
High Sensitivity or the scientific term of Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) doesn’t mean that you are necessarily shy or over-sensitive emotionally, rather it is a biological trait or phenotype shared by 20% of the population, children and adults alike.
According to Elaine Aron, a Highly Sensitive Person has a more sensitive nervous system and hence is more sensitive to sensory stimuli – noise, smell, texture, movement and sight, and as a result people with High Sensitivity process more information and ‘feel’ more deeply.
High Sensitivity is therefore a form of neurodiversity as the brain is working differently from the expected norm. Just as with other forms of neurodiversity, people with High Sensitivity are more prone to stress as their systems can be overloaded with too much sensory input.
An Evolutionary Advantage
This trait of High Sensitivity can be seen across many species of animal and if you think about it, it provides an evolutionary advantage. Within a social group, those highly sensitive animals or humans are the guards or ‘lookouts’; they notice subtle changes in the landscape or others’ body language and behaviours and so are naturally attuned to potential danger.
More recently W. Thomas Boyce suggested a spectrum of Sensitivity, with low Sensitivity at one end and high Sensitivity at the other. At the low Sensitivity end he termed people ‘dandelions’ as like the plants, they thrive anywhere and at the other end ‘Orchids’ who need the perfect conditions to thrive, but when they do, they are spectacular. And of course, there are many people in between.
How do you know if you are a HSP?
Perhaps you are wondering if you or someone in your family is an Orchid? Amongst children in particular the tell-tale signs might include:
- Struggling with itchy labels or changing clothes with the seasons,
- Affected by bright lights or strong smells,
- Finds busy and crowded places overwhelming,
- Difficulty with change and a dislike of surprises,
- Deeply empathic
- A strong reaction to perceived injustice – in themselves or in the world more generally,
- Avoidance of conflict and confrontation (unless righting a perceived injustice!)
- A tendency to pause and reflect before taking part in something new i.e., a party game or swimming lessons.
As a Highly Sensitive adult, some of these might resonate for you too i.e. finding lights in particular shops very difficult, certain smells overpowering, or finding busy places overwhelming. However, it is more than likely that over the years you have developed certain coping strategies for such intense sensory situations and that might include avoidance at times.
Is being an HSP all bad news?
Whilst orchid children need a good environment (i.e., home and school) to thrive, it is important to note that any positive actions or interventions to support them will be very positively received. Whilst orchids respond more negatively to negative situations, they also respond more positively to positive situations and behaviours than dandelions do. Therefore, any positive action to support a Highly Sensitive child will really help.
It doesn’t stop there though. If you recognise that your child might be Highly Sensitive, it is often the case that one of the parents is Highly Sensitive too. As an adult it is really valuable to remember that anything you can do to create a more positive environment at home or work will make a difference to you too.
Orchids are a household’s stress barometer and so if your child seems more anxious, their sleep patterns have changed or any avoidant behaviour has increased it could be because of pressures and stresses felt by the wider household rather than something they are trying to manage alone and of course they might have noticed this stress before anyone else.
My own lived experience
I remember being in school at about 8 or 9 years old and when the teacher shouted at one of the other pupils, I used to feel awful. I would get hot, my heart would pound, I would feel sick and just want to hide. I suppose I assumed that everyone felt like I did. Of course, for the child being shouted at, it was no big deal and they laughed it off, as a staunch dandelion would, but for me it was awful. In school I took any action I could to avoid being told off because the fear of feeling so bad was all the motivation I needed.
Even today, I will avoid conflict and confrontation at all costs and when someone shouts or is confrontational (not necessarily with me) I feel just like I did as a child.
It is helpful to understand that an orchid has a more sensitive amygdala response than someone who is not Highly Sensitive, which means that their flight/fight survival response is triggered more regularly and intensely. Also, because orchids feel the resulting symptoms more strongly too – increased heart rate, hot flush, sweaty palms, churning stomach and nausea, the biggest fear is often the feeling of fear itself.
The fear of feeling the panic/overwhelm or other fight/flight symptom such as nausea is often why children (often unconsciously) start avoiding things that might be stressful so that they can avoid the feeling e.g. going upstairs in the house on their own, not wanting to go on a school trip or refusing to travel on the school bus.
Whilst it is true that your orchid child has to learn to live better with the ‘feeling’, it is also important to have the understanding as an adult that your orchid child notices more and feels more and so it is likely they feel stressed or anxious more often and that the feeling of anxiety itself likely scares them. Children can learn to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ i.e. build their resilience, but only when we help them to reduce their general levels of stress and teach them about how their brain works and why they feel the way they do. For dandelion children this is useful information, but for orchids it is essential.
If you would like to know more about supporting your Highly Sensitive child (or if you are a Highly Sensitive parent) or if you are a member of teaching staff, do look out for future webinars and training I will be offering.
About the Author: Emma Treby works with people online and face to face in our Mid-Devon clinic: “I specialise in helping clients who feel stuck and want to regain connection in their lives – with themselves, their family and their passions. I have a particular interest in supporting Highly Sensitive People who often come to my clinic with anxiety, a lack of confidence or concern about their own Highly Sensitive child and how to parent them in a way that enables them to thrive.”
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