". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Parenting Epiphany

I've recently had an epiphany. Several, actually. The first is that my son Evan, 8, fits perfectly the definition of a highly sensitive child (HSC). I have known for a long time that he is "sensitive." But when I thought about sensitivity I tended to do so in purely behavioral terms. So I equated his sensitivity with the fact that he seems to feel things incredibly deeply and to wear his heart on his sleeve, broadcasting every emotion for all to see and sometimes having trouble getting those emotions in check. But none of those things automatically equate to being Highly Sensitive. Like introversion and extroversion, high sensitivity has more to do with what is going on inside a person than it does with what you see coming out of the person. It's not something you can identify merely on the surface.

Having recently shared with a few friends some of my and my husband's challenges in parenting Evan, I was advised to read the book linked above, The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron, and I have been doing so for the past week. I have learned so much! High sensitivity means literally what it says: the senses of a highly sensitive person are heightened such that textures, smells, sounds, tastes and visual stimuli are all more pronounced. So there is a higher, stronger level of sensory input than there is for the average person and there is also more of it; in other words, because the receptors are more sensitive the stimuli are increased in both quality/intensity and in quantity. Not only that, the highly sensitive person is typically more intuitive, picking up on subtleties that many people miss. All of this can sometimes add up to sensory overload, with which the highly sensitive person uses various means of coping.

The Highly Sensitive Child begins with a diagnostic list of 23 markers for highly sensitive children. Aron says that 13 or more of them indicate likely high sensitivity. Evan exhibits about 20 of them. They are things like--

startles easily

complains about seams in socks and labels in shirts (Evan takes forever to put on his shoes because his socks have to be just right, and I have to cut the tags out of the back of most of his shirts. Once he gets used to wearing a certain type of clothing it is also very difficult to get him to change. I still have not gotten him to wear sandals this summer.)

uses big words for one's age

dislikes wet, dirty or sandy clothing--has to change immediately if something is soiled (Evan changed his shirt yesterday due to a hole the size of a nail head. Then he asked if I could please go to the store and get him another shirt exactly like the one with the hole.)

asks deep, thought-provoking questions (Um, yeah. We get our share of those. )

dislikes surprises

very sensitive to pain

bothered by noise

cautious--considers the safety of things and avoids risks

performs best when strangers aren't present

feels things deeply

notices slightest unusual odor (and the poor kid has coffee drinkers for parents)

clever sense of humor


has trouble getting to sleep

doesn't do well with big changes (or even small ones)

asks a lot of questions

is a perfectionist

empathetic--notices and feels deeply the distress of others

notices subtleties (something in a different place than it used to be or a change in someone's appearance)

There are several other things that are not included in the diagnostic list but are mentioned in the course of the book. Evan exhibits all of these:

more allergies than the average child

frequent headaches

strong sense of shame (I see this in Evan a lot--he will do something wrong, will say he's sorry and be forgiven, but then he continues to feel ashamed.)

My oldest son has Asperger Syndrome. We have been wondering for a while if Evan might have it, too, but while he has a few AS traits he is missing others. According to the book, high sensitivity is often confused with AS or other autism spectrum disorders because of the physical sensitivity and also because of some of the behaviors one might see in an overwhelmed HSC. But the big difference between AS and high sensitivity is that an AS child is not sensitive to social input, in fact misses huge aspects of it, while a highly sensitive child is. The HSC may have trouble handling all the social input, but he is most definitely tuned in to it.

We have also wondered if Evan has ADD (attention deficit disorder) because of the ease with which his mind wanders. For example, he is in children's choir at our church, and he loves to sing, but so often he just forgets. He will start out singing something, stop a few words in while he ponders something else, and then suddenly come back in at the end (usually too loud). But at other times he can concentrate for very long periods. In the book Aron says that high sensitivity is often confused with ADD due to the high distractibility of both types of children but that the difference is that the HSC does not have the same basic difficulty with "executive functions such as decision making, focusing, and reflecting on outcomes. HSCs are usually good at all of this, at least when they are in a calm, familiar environment" (p. 29). It's just that, again, the HSCs are aware of so much that they may have trouble ignoring the distractions.

Some other things I have observed in Evan that I am now starting to connect to high sensitivity are--


Fear of television--he will only watch tapes of shows he has seen before because he is afraid of startling images, loud noises, or anything unexpected coming on to the screen. It is hard to get him to watch something he has never seen before.

Crying over goodbyes--even when it is a child he just met and played with for a short time on the playground.

Refusal to play outside because of fear of bugs.

High level of empathy--I have to be very careful about the books I choose to give or read to him because he will become distraught over even mildly sad or scary stories. He has cried over Calvin & Hobbes.

Taking forever to complete simple tasks because he is distracted by every. single. thing.

Dislike of things or people that look different from what he is used to. We had to drop out of swimming class a few years ago in part because his female teacher had a crew cut and multiple piercings and he was afraid of her.

Dislike of things which threaten his ability to control his responses. On more than one occasion when expecting something in the mail he has told me, "Only tell me if it comes. Don't tell me if it doesn't come." So he will watch as I go out and check the mail. And I know he is watching to see if the thing he is expecting came. But if it didn't come, and I return to the house to tell him, "It didn't come" there is the danger of a meltdown, whereas if I just don't say anything and let him watch and figure it out on his own he will be able to handle the disappointment better.

Refusal to use the same utensil for more than one item of food on his plate.

And the list could go on. As I peruse it again, I am amazed that it took me this long to stumble on this framework for understanding my child. So much is making sense in a way it never did before. And here at the age of 47 I am understanding myself a little better, too. Because for the first time I have realized that I am also a highly sensitive person. My family is laughing at me, saying, I'm sure, "We could have told you that." But it is a revelation to me. And in another post I'll tell you why.


Untamed Shrew said...

"Attention Deficit Disorder" has always seemed a misnomer to me. It's not that these kids don't pay attention or have a deficit in that category; on the contrary, they pay attention to EVERYthing! Maybe it should be called "Focus Deficit Disorder."

Suzanne said...

Hmmm. Cheryl, glad you are figuring out your sensitive boy. My sister's boy, also named Evan :-), could identify with a lot of this. She said he had "Sensory Integration Disorder". I remember last year we were on vacation together. They had just arrived and she had put Evan in a sleeping bag. Everyone was exhausted, but Evan was bothered by the texture of his sleeping bag on his feet. He had worn sandals and had no socks. In desperation my sis' put my Dad's sweaty, stinky socks that he had worn all day onto Evan's feet. It worked, thank goodness.

Mary Ellyn said...

I run around the world of internationally adopted kids coming out of orphanages -- they bring a ton of challenges to parents.

I have an ADHD kid on medication which has been a life savior for him -- he can hyper-focus when I don't want him though! Now that he's in high school we are seeing lots of executive function type concerns. I lovingly refer to myself as Alex's extra 'pre-frontal cortex'.

The highly sensitive child reminds me of sensory integration disorder which the post-institutional kids and their families have to manage.


mz said...

I have one too. She has a difficult time socially, especially at church. I have thought about getting her evaluated for SPD, but she had such a deep emotional component to her behaviors that I don't know if it would be beneficial even if she did qualify for OT. I have found the information and techniques at handinhandparenting.org to be helpful in navigating the emotional roller coaster with her. One caveat with that website is that they come from the assumption that all children are good by nature. We know that the opposite is true but I have found that by using the techniques I am more able to put the best construction on her behaviorrather than operating from the default mindset that she is behaving a certain way just to ne difficult.

Cheryl said...

Thanks for the thoughts and links, everyone!