“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” – Hippocrates
It is clear that without sensory literacy, we will continue to inadvertently disadvantage and hurt some of our most sensitive children. As we discussed in chapter 4, we tend to be unaware of the prevalent sensory toxicity in our western world, while other cultures have integrated the senses in their belief systems for millennia. Dealing with the invisible nature of the senses makes re-learning sensory wisdom difficult.
As a parent who did not find answers or solutions within the traditional medical system, I began to look for answers in other traditions. It became evident that there is a sensory culture distributed among many traditions that can help us create a bridge between our societal accepted notions of health and sensory well being. Could synthesizing ancient Asian, aboriginal health traditions as well as holistic health offer solutions that address the complexity of sensory health? Could emerging neuro-science knowledge help explain what ancient cultures have known for millennia?
Is it possible to re-discover spatial embodied knowledge and begin to build the sensory literacy necessary to decolonize our senses?
While I am not an expert in these traditions, witnessing the richness of cultures that related to the senses made me want to incorporate some of these wisdoms in our lives. These alternate ideas made it possible for me to address an array of hidden health determinants that could be balanced in my children and myself. Be reminded that I am not a medical doctor. In order to help my children, I have done a lot of research but also consult and rely on a team of health practitioners. Generating in the process a sensory health “library” to consider sensory well being.
Observing my children’s reaction to the world, I began to become aware of the importance of sensory health to their well being. Through time this led me to formulate a personal sensory health framework and, in the process, develop a deeper understanding of “out of sync” sensorial behaviours. When I began this quest, I was interested in finding a health framework that not only favour the centrality of the senses to health but also acknowledge the role of technology in defining space as well as altering the nature of it’s communication signals. So far, I have not found one.
My role as a parent is to understand my children well enough to be able to collaborate with health professionals when needed. This is where a health framework has become useful to us. By understanding which aspects of health is out of balance within my children, I can then research and develop strategies with the help of a health practitioner, a naturopath, occupational therapist, psychologists, social worker, teacher, etc.
In this chapter, I will retrace my intellectual journey into understanding the senses as a health variant. As an academic trained in fundamental research methodologies, I cannot help to approach a question from an intellectual lens. Feel free to skip this chapter if theory is not an interest of yours. While intellectually, the issues that are interrelated in thinking about sensory health seem complex, the solutions to sensory imbalances are actually quite simple, as we will see in the next few chapters.
The complexity that I mention exists for a few reasons. First, defining health itself is challenging. As we will explore, each individual has unique health issues which means that we need to find a pluralistic approach to incorporate individual health needs. Second, understanding what is causing a sensory issue requires considering the environment within which we exist; we are often unaware of this environment as being a complex system of invisible communication signals that affect us physically. This can make identifying sensory triggers difficult. Third, how we define the senses influences our ability to understand sensory processing issues as being real. Finally, there is no hierarchy in what affects sensory health, imbalances can come from sensory inputs, the senses themselves, imbalances in the body, the environment including its social, cultural and physical dimensions.
Given these potential difficulties, developing framework that helps a parent or a child to begin the process of becoming aware of what his/her particularities are and to develop a vocabulary to discuss sensory difficulties is essential and simplifies the process of moving towards sensorial well being. A personal health framework does not mean raking into account all aspects that can affect the senses, but to focus on the specificity of each situation. The first question this chapter explore relates to the potentiality of creating a pluralistic health model.
A Pluralistic Health Model?
Health is a difficult concept to define. According to health coach Chris Kresser, there’s no such thing as perfect health. But we can take steps toward a better health. Among those steps, none is more important than the next and the focal point will vary from person to person:
“Most of us want black and white answers to questions like this, because they provide the illusion of safety and certainty. We want the answer to be the same for everyone, because it’s easier to follow a system or a prescription than it is to find our own way. And as tribal animals, we humans like to be part of a group.”(Kresser, 2013)[i]
Kresser noticed that each of us has a significant blind spot or area in our lives where we lack awareness and insight. Most of us invest the majority of our time and energy strengthening the parts of our life that are already strong:
“These stronger links are where we feel comfortable and confident, where we can operate safely within the bounds of who we think we are. And this is where the problem lies. No matter how much we strengthen the links in our chain that are already strong, if there’s still a weak link the chain as a whole isn’t stronger. It can break just as easily.
A better approach, of course, would be to focus our efforts on the strengthening the weak link. But that is much, much harder to do. Why? Because it usually requires us to step out of our concept of self and challenge our very identity. It asks us to grow and evolve and shine the light of awareness into the dark corners of our psyche. This isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s not as simple as popping a pill or eliminating nightshades from our diet. It’s a life’s work.”(Kresser, 2013)
As Kresser points out, there isn’t an easy, quick solution to health. And in the end, No one can tell you what is going to work for your family, as the issues are inter-related and specific to each family. Similarly, there is not one way of approaching this issue, thus the importance of informing ourselves and become sensory detectives and create sensory life diets appropriate to our families’ unique needs.
Therefore, a sensory health framework must be pluralistic, taking into consideration the uniqueness of a child’s experiences (sensory and otherwise) and a family’s context. As someone trained in fundamental research methodologies, I could not stay away from theories related to how we understand and perceive a complex world. The complexity involved in sensory well being made me turn to the Integrative theory, which can provide a framework to approach the hidden nature of sensory life in a systematic yet flexible way. Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, co-director of the Integral ecology centre, presents a useful summary of the theory[ii], which is summarized below.
Integrative Theory: A Plurality of Perspective
American philosopher Ken Wilber developed the integrated theory framework to understand the complex experiences an individual encounters when perceiving reality:
Integral approaches to any field attempt to be exactly that: to include as many perspectives, styles, and methodologies as possible within a coherent view of the topic. In a certain sense, integral approaches are “meta-paradigms,” or ways to draw together an already existing number of separate paradigms into an interrelated network of approaches that are mutually enriching.”[iii]
According to this approach, everything can be understood from two fundamental distinctions: 1) an inside and an outside perspective and 2) from a singular and plural perspective. These primary perspectives represent aspects of the world that are always present in each moment. For example, all individuals have personal sensory experiences that affect their internal processes (interior perspective); that generate various observable behaviours (exterior perspective); that are felt by the individual (singular perspective) and observed by the social group (plural perspective).
Interestingly, this approach is similarly to aboriginal health belief systems, individuals are never considered alone but as members of groups or collectives, which establish social and cultural components that a person usually integrates. This makes understanding why a person behaves a certain way more complex than it may seem. As Sean Esbjörn-Hargens explains: “For example, what’s more important in human behaviour? The psychology of the mind (upper left), or the cultural conditioning of the individual (lower left)? Integral Theory answers, again: BOTH. What is more critical in social development? The habits, customs, and norms of a culture (lower left), or the products it produces (like gun and steel – lower right). Integral Theory answers: BOTH. The more we can consciously include the 4 quadrants in our perspective, the more whole, balanced, healthy, comprehensive, and effective our actions will be.”[iv]
These dimensions of reality are represented in a quadrant matrix that is often referred to as the AQAL model. This model embraces the complexity of reality by considering each quadrant as simultaneously arising and equality important.
Figure 1: The Integral (AQAL) Model
A specific analytical tool from this theory, the quadrivia approach, can be used to understand sensory experiences from a plurality of perspectives. The term “quadrivia” refers to four ways of seeing (quadrivium is singular) comes into play in a sensory experience.
Figure 2: Quadrivia Model
With this approach, sensory experiences can be discerned in a more nuanced way by encompassing a broad array of sensory health aspects. These include exploring the emotions, self-identities, and beliefs of the individual, the family and the community through psychological and experiential inquiry; exploring the empirical, chemical, and biological factors contributing to the sensory overload through behavioural and physiological analysis; exploring the philosophical, ethical, and religious viewpoints of the community around the child through cultural and worldview investigations; and exploring the environmental, political, educational, legal, and economic factors of the situation through ecological and social assessments. It becomes possible to distinguish between subjective and “objectives” sensorial experiences and to potentially comprehend at which point in the sensorial experience a child’s subjective experience trumps the objective rules of his/her culture and social groups.
Through out this chapter, the AQAL model will be used to examine these questions. First, let’s articulate what a sensory health framework should aim to accomplish for a highly sensitive child.
Highly Sensitive Children’s Sensory Health Framework
The subsequent framework is based on the following hypotheses:
1) Highly sensitive children uniquely combine heightened sensory intelligence to other forms of intelligence, which impart them with a different identity formation.
2) The characteristics of modern space influence highly sensitive children’s sensory experiences and, as a result, their well being.
3) Highly sensitive children’s well being is dependant on their ability to balance responsiveness to stimuli; hence a highly sensitive child needs to develop awareness, self-realization and self-determination of his/her heightened sensory intelligence.
A HSC health framework should provide the tools for a child and his/her family to develop the literacy necessary to move through different levels of personal development unique to heightened senses. Consequently, it should facilitate the development of an individualized health system calibrated to the specific temperament and personality of a child as well as his/her specific types of heightened intelligence (sensorial, social, emotional, empathic, etc) and the unique characteristic of his or her environment. Given the wisdom of our ancestors towards these issues, a HSC health model should combine ancestral and modern knowledge, in order to learn how to consciously use the senses and develop the life strategies necessary to achieve a state of well being.
Space is the medium of sensory communication. As a medium, space is an intervening substance through which impressions are conveyed to a person. Sensory inputs include fundamental yet invisible spatial influences, those of energy and the environment (both social, physical, biological, etc) messages.
These messages penetrate the sensory boundaries of an individual and are delivered to the senses that process the input messages and translate them into information that an individual can use. The body and brain process these signals and sensory outputs are produced. Our brain modulates these inputs and, depending on our cultural learning, these sensory messages can be interpreted as elements of a sensory language or confuse us when our culture lacks comprehension of sensory communication. Our body then reacts to sensory stimuli via more or less appropriate behaviours (physiological, energy, as well as cognitive and emotional). These outputs are then transmitted back into space where they interact with the environment and can be interpreted by individuals who then provide us with social feedback. Thus, space is both the means of transmitting and receiving of sensory information. As such, it is the foundation of the model but also a recipient of sensory output. Thus, space will exist as multiple planes within the model since we exist in a sensory feedback system, where sensory information comes from space and our sensory reactions affect the quality of space.
Spatial sensory communication is not necessarily easy to decipher. Yet, it is central to the health of a highly sensitive child. Since a highly sensitive child is greatly influenced by sensory communication processes, the quality of space affects how the child understands reality and defines his/her identity. Using the quadrivia approach, it becomes possible to create a map of sensory life that can guide explorations in solving sensory imbalances. Multiple dimensions exist at the intersection of our spatial environment and social life experiences, which continuously influence each other and all together form a system of sensory communication. Each of these planes represents a field of existence with its own sensory data that simultaneously influence our responsiveness while also being influenced by our behaviours and influencing each other. When a child’s health is balanced, all the health quadrants improve in a cascading unison and visa versa, when a child becomes stressed and/or distressed, all the quadrants are affected. Each quadrant can be the source of distress that will begin a process of destabilization.
Figure 3: Adaptation of The Quadrivia Approach to Sensory Life
Sensory experiences can be understood within the integral quadrant model. The responsiveness to stimuli represents the experiential dimension (internal/individual quadrant); while the reaction to stimuli defines the behavioural dimension (Individual/external) of sensory life; our understanding of the child’s experience relates to the cultural dimension (Collective interior), and how we feel and react to a child’s sensory issue relates to the social/systemic dimension of the issue.
The goal of the following HSC Sensory Health Framework is to bring to consciousness these unconscious sensory processes in order to develop personal sensory insights. Sensory insight is a type of understanding that emerges from learning how to observe internal and external sensory influences. As we saw in chapter 3, by developing mind sight, it is possible to retrain the brain to switch negative perception of experiences into positive ones. With sensory awareness, it also becomes possible to develop sensory sight, as another aspect of mind sight. Sensory sight can be developed by becoming attuned to sensory messages and by learning to decipher them. As our awareness grows, our sensorial knowledge increases, and what were once unconscious experiences can become understood (literacy); a sensory vocabulary can be developed from the analysis of these sensory input and become the basis of a personal sensory language; by developing this conscious sensory awareness we can learn to interpret the communication signals of the internal and external dimensions of our being, and to understand how the specific nature of how sensory stimuli influences our sensory processing and modulation, pathway to recalibrating our senses and ways of life and participating consciously in any given sensorial situation (sensory insight). Sensory insight is the result of sensory self-awareness and Self Realization.
This chapter explores the diverse dimensions of sensory life in detail, in order to bring to light the complexity of a highly sensitive child’s sensory life and help highly sensitive children slowly develop sensory sight and insights. The framework defined below is not exhaustive, but provides many potential starting points to explore sensory life. It offers a variety of perspectives that a parent can decide to examine.
The model incorporates layers of dynamics at plan within a sensory experience. To beginning with, we will explore the interior dimension of sensory perception.
Layer 1: Inputs: The Hidden Dimensions of Sensory Perception
According to Dr. Aron, a characteristic of highly sensitive children is their sensory processing sensitivity. Sensory processing sensitivity is proposed to be an innate trait associated with greater sensitivity to environmental and social stimuli (Aron et al. 2012)[v].
Beginning to discuss highly sensitive children health means understanding what a heightened sensory or other kinds of heightened experiences are and how they influence the way a child perceives the world and his/her identity. In the case of highly sensitive children, the environment and social stimuli play a crucial, yet invisible, role in their identity formation and affects their behaviours to a much greater degree than other children. Given that spatial embodied knowledge is vital to the identity formation and sensorial experiences of highly sensitive people, we will begin by examining the hidden nature of space at a molecular level.
As we saw in chapter 5, everything that exists is made of energy, including us. In the article “what exactly is Higgs-Boson”, Jonathan Atteberry explains that the standard model of Modern particle physics has articulated that the universe doesn’t only contain matter; it also contains forces that act upon that matter. Along with particles, the standard model also acknowledges four forces: gravity, electromagnetic, strong and weak. As it turns out, scientists think each one of those four fundamental forces has a corresponding carrier particle, or boson, that acts upon matter.
“ Some physicists have described bosons as weights anchored by mysterious rubber bands to the matter particles that generate them. Using this analogy, we can think of the particles constantly snapping back out of existence in an instant and yet equally capable of getting entangled with other rubber bands attached to other bosons (and imparting force in the process).
Scientists think each of the four fundamental ones has its own specific bosons. Electromagnetic fields, for instance, depend on the photon to transit electromagnetic force to matter. Physicists think the Higgs boson might have a similar function — but transferring mass itself.”[vi]
Assuming the Higgs boson exists, everything that has mass gets it by interacting with the all-powerful Higgs field, which occupies the entire universe. If these forces are what bind the world together, the nature of matter itself has been redefined. Physicists now understand that particles have no inherent mass, but instead gain mass by passing through a field.
If the Higgs field generates energetic forces that are invisible to us, it is still the essential nature of space. One can assume this Higgs field functions similarly to other energy fields we know of, such as electricity.
As Bernie Hobbs explains[vii], an electric charge always has an electric field around it, spreading out forever. If an electric charge moves, the electric field will move with it. No matter what speed the charge is moving at, its electric field will follow it at the speed of light, but it takes a tiny fraction of time for the whole field to catch up. If you make the charge move up and down (or side to side, or back to front) in a nice steady rhythm, the electric field around it forms waves – like the ripples on a pond – moving out in every direction at the speed of light. Whenever an electric field moves, it automatically creates a magnetic field that mimics its moves but at a 90 degree angle. The electromagnetic field travels as a wave just in the same way as light does.
Magnetic fields can control other forms of energy. Researchers at The Ohio State University have discovered how to control heat with a magnetic field. The study is the first ever to demonstrate that acoustic phonons — the elemental particles that transmit both heat and sound — have magnetic properties:
“This adds a new dimension to our understanding of acoustic waves,” said Joseph Heremans, Ohio Eminent Scholar in Nanotechnology and professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State. “We’ve shown that we can steer heat magnetically. With a strong enough magnetic field, we should be able to steer sound waves, too.” (…) “We believe that these general properties are present in any solid,” said Hyungyu Jin, Ohio State postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the study”.[viii]
If all energy has magnetic properties, it must be present in humans in some way. Our body generates electricity, and this ability is actually a key part of your achieving health. Electricity allows our nervous system to send signals to our brain. These signals are electrical charges that are delivered from cell to cell, allowing for nearly instantaneous communication. The messages conducted via electrical signals in our body are responsible for controlling the rhythm of our heartbeat, the movement of blood around your body, and much more.
We are electrical beings and as such, we also create magnetic fields. We know that an electromagnetic field affects the behaviour of anything with charge in the vicinity of the field. The image below illustrates the invisible signature of a magnetic field. It is quite plausible that the Higgs field produces a similar invisible effect.
|Figure 4: Invisible electromagnetic signature|
These findings suggest that we are made of energy and forces, not matter, and that we are forces that exist in a field of energies and interact with other fields of energy. Highly sensitive children are more sensitive to the signals of these fields and perceive their subtleties in great detail. These energies are the fundamentals of sensory communication.
Given their heightened ability to process subtleties, we should consider the quality of external influences as central to the “self” formation of highly sensitive children. While the processing of sensory input is internal, the inputs themselves are external elements. Energy emanates from all sentient being, as such it is important to understand the quality of energy people and the world bring to these children.
Since space is central to sensory life and that energy is core to space, the most fundamental element of sensory life is energy. We need to consider that a highly sensitive child’s “being” is intertwined amongst many dimensions in interactions with energy which have a subtle effect on the child; and that their well being depends in part on balancing the inter-relationship of energy to a number of other health determinants.
Here lies a first difficulty; energy is the most difficult element to consider as it is invisible and depending on our belief systems (the social and cultural perspectives), it has more or less defined boundaries. This explains why understanding the nature of a highly sensitive child’s sensory experience is often difficult, what is sensed may not be obvious. But if we can help them to understand these boundaries by rendering them explicit, highly sensitive children may be able to recognize where the edges of their being begin and stop. With awareness of their existence in space, they may stop confusing themselves with the environment, a rather difficult situation, also detrimental to identity formation and sure to create tremendous anxieties. We will come back in greater details the nature of this spatial dimension of health and its implications on a child’s behaviours later on. First, it is important to understand the unique way in which a child’s spatial experience of the world influences his/her perception of life and influence a highly sensitive child’s health.
HSC’s Holistic Experience of the Environment: Identity and Sensory Experiences of Spatial and Social contexts
Interestingly, the quadrivia approach, that we saw earlier, reinforces from a theoretical perspective what aboriginal culture already articulated: a child exists in a social context, a family, a community and the world. Adapted from Cindy Blacksock’s aboriginal health model, which we explored in chapter 5, the figure below shows these influences.
Figure 5: Experiential Environment Influences
These elements constitute the immediate environment (E) of a child and are the first items that will be sensed or experienced by a child and as a result have a direct impact on his/her sense of self. This environment is built upon matter, energy and force fields (e) emanating from all these elements. While their influence can be undetectable, nevertheless, they have an incredible impact on a highly sensitive child sensory health. These elements are intertwined, operating simultaneously on the senses, thus the use of circles to represent each field of influence, affecting and reacting to each other. These fields of influences shape a child’s experience of the world and as a result unconsciously forge his/her perception of reality and self. A highly sensitive child through his/her own spatial awareness perceives these varied sensory dimensions.
A person can obtain a deeper level of awareness by becoming familiar with these fields of perception using the quadrivia approach:
“Through his use of different aspects of his own awareness, or through formal methods based on these dimensions of awareness, he is able to encounter these different realities in a direct and knowable fashion. In brief, he has direct access to experiential, behavioural, cultural, and social/systemic aspects of reality because these are actual dimensions of his own existence. This is useful to him because it empowers him to notice, acknowledge, and interact more effectively with his world. In short, the more of these “channels” he has open the more information he will be obtaining about what is happening around him and he will be able to feel and act in ways that are timely and insightful. Notice right now how you are engaged in all three perspectives: first-person (e.g., noticing your own thoughts as you read this), second-person (e.g., reading my words and interpreting what I am trying to convey), and third-person (e.g., sitting there aware of the light, sounds, and air temperature around you). Do you see how you are always experiencing the world from all four quadrants—right here, right now? It is that simple.”[ix]
The rest of this section explores these perspectives. Let’s begin with a child’s “first person” experience.
The Highly Sensitive Child: A Deeply Spatially Interconnected Holistic Being
According to Dr. Arthur Aron and his team, humans characterized as HSPs are genetically predisposed to show heightened awareness to subtle stimuli, process information more thoroughly, and be more reactive to both positive and negative stimuli. In contrast, the majority of people have comparatively low SPS and pay less attention to subtle stimuli, approach situations more quickly and are not as emotionally reactive.
In “The Highly Sensitive Brain: An fMRI study of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Response to Others’ Emotions,” Drs. Aron and colleagues used fMRI brain scans to compare HSPs with low SPS individuals. The analysis is the first with fMRI to demonstrate how HSPs’ brain activity processes others’ emotions[x].
It is clear that this heightened sensory capacity is central to the nature of highly sensitive children’s emotions, self-identities, and beliefs system. Their cognitive, psychological and experiential perceptions of life are deeply rooted in these heightened sensory perceptions. This ability to read subtleties implies that highly sensitive children experiences are holistic.
One of the most common distinctions in the literature on cognitive style is between analytic and holistic styles. Analytic thinking involves understanding a system by thinking about its parts and how they work together to produce larger-scale effects. Holistic thinking involves understanding a system by sensing its large-scale patterns and reacting to them. A holistic person does not tear things apart mentally, to understand them. Instead, the holistic person tends to approach a subject by trying to understand its gist or general meaning. Their ability to get a general feeling about a situation may open their minds to subtle nuances of complex situations (Dewey)[xi].
Analytical thinkers may focus on what a person says to understand how they feel, a process regulated by cultural and social norm, but holistic thinkers operate differently. They read the subtlety of another person’s energy and body language to gage their emotions. This makes them also highly empathic.
An Empathic Experience of the World
Neuroscientists use the term “Theory of Mind” to define the ability to infer other people’s mental states such as intentions or desires. Theory of Mind can be differentiated into affective (i.e., recognizing the feelings of another person) and cognitive (i.e., inferring the mental state of the counterpart) subcomponents (Bodden, 2013)[xii].
It is becoming increasingly evident that our cognitive and affective states are influenced by our senses but are processed differently. The cognitive and affective aspects of theory of mind share the same local patterns of activity in the posterior temporal cortex. The posterior temporal cortex allows us to derive meanings from sensory input for the appropriate retention of auditory and/or visual memories, language comprehension, and emotion association (Smith, 2007)[xiii]. In other words, cognitive and affective theory of mind both call upon the area of the brain that is involved with processing sensory input.
Nonetheless, the cognitive and affective aspects of theory of mind both do not use the medial prefrontal cortex in the same way (Corradi-Dell’Acqua, Hofstetter and Vuilleumier, 2013)[xiv]. The prefrontal cortex is involved in planning complex cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decision-making, and moderating social behaviour (Yang and Raine, 2009)[xv]. The basic activity of this brain region is considered to be orchestration of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals (Miller, Freedman and Wallis, 2002)[xvi], it is the of the brain involved in analysis, behaviour regulation and attention.
Interestingly, destruction of the orbital (frontal) lobe results in inappropriate social behaviour. What if, highly sensitive children’s empathic thinking and feelings bypass the area of the brain that moderates social behaviour? Some research points towards this idea.
Neuroscientists have demonstrated that empathy represses analytic thought, and vice versa. When the brain fires up the network of neurons that allows us to empathize, it suppresses the network used for analysis (Case Western Reserve University, 2012).[xvii] There is evidence of separate neural pathways activating reciprocal suppression in different regions of the brain associated with the performance of “social” and “mechanical” tasks (Jack et al, 2013) [xviii].
Our brain is triggered and responds to the inputs it receives from the external world, and, depending on the person, sends or suppresses signals that influence the behaviour of a person. It would seem that a majority of people, what we call neuro-typical, have developed the ability to suppress empathy in favour of analytical though; while highly sensitive people can not. On the contrary, in their case such a suppression is damaging to their well being.
Both holistic and empathic thinking are intuitive processes that bypass cultural and social norms of communication. When a holistic and/or empathic thinker is unaware of this distinction, he/she may not be able to reconcile this intuitive reading with the dominant cultural and social analytical communication conventions and, confused by the disjunction between what is said and what is felt and seen, become out of sorts.
Instead of assuming all children follow the same psychological development path, the fundamental foundation for highly sensitive children should be their “unitive” sensory experiences. In other words: their “present-centered” flow of awareness within their environment should be considered the foundation of their psychological development.
But in ego-centered theories, such as Loevinger’s (1976)[xix] theory of ego development, a unitive skill is the highest level of ego development while for highly sensitive children, these skills are paradoxically central to their first levels of personality, the Pre-conventional development, which is marked by low impulse control and fear of punishment.
This could explain the rise of autism and adhd diagnoses. As our culture becomes more repressive, children, often very sensitive until a certain age, become overwhelmed and develop brain patterns that block out the disjointing input (autistic associated behaviours) or need to loose control to let the discordance out of their body (adhd associated behaviours) since, at this stage, they have low impulse control and fear punishment.
There lays another challenge, addressing high levels of development in certain areas within a highly sensitive child’s mind that is still, in many aspects, in its infancy. The more heightened their unitive skills are, the more asynchronic their development may be in other areas and the more difficulty they may have adapting to cultural learning. A potentially very damaging situation when faced with school that tend to require all children to mature in the same areas at a similar rate and a medical culture that is based on synchronic developments and a normative approach to what is health.
As we saw in chapter 1 and 4, in addition to their holistic and empathic perceptions, the boundaries of highly sensitive children’s self are not confined to their body, rather they are first defined by their position in space. Hence, we must think of their being in a different way, one that is influenced by the hidden dimension of the environment and be prepared for them to have a different development scales. Their development scale should consider spatial, empathic and holistic sensing as the foundation of their being. Instead of an ego-based model, a sensory-based model should be developed for each child.
Self-Aware, stage 5 of traditional ego development, is the stage of development where children can begin to understand and articulate the nature of their sensory reactions. As an individual moves from Pre-conventional development towards conventional development they need to understand personal differences and, with age, become more tolerant in order to achieve Self-Awareness. Instead of focusing on analytical skills, highly sensitive children should be encouraged to develop their sensory skills and in time become analytical within a sensory reality of the self.
If we accept that, as holistic and empathic thinkers, highly sensitive children’s development process is different from Neurotypical children, we can help highly sensitive children become aware of the differences in process. A child could then begin to use this understanding and learn how to analyse his or her thinking and sensations and learn to respond in a language and behaviours appropriate for the specific social/cultural group and context.
How a child react to environmental and other types of stimuli is individual. Responses depend on the type of personality the child has. Integral theory can help understand what needs to be considered through its notion of types. These are the variety of consistent styles that arise in various domains and occur irrespective of developmental levels. We can think of types as the different personality or temperament traits highly sensitive children can have; those who are introverted, those who are extroverted, those who get over-stimulated, those who get under-stimulated, those who are sensory seekers, and those who are sensory defenders. All these children have heightened sensory processing capacities, this regardless of the type of stimuli they are reacting to; but they bring their unique temperament or “personality styles” to their responses to stimuli. Types have expressions in all four quadrants (see Figure below).
Figure 6: illustrations of Personality Types
This illustration of types designed by Sean Esbjörn-Hargens allows incorporating the various dimensions related to personality we explored in chapter 3. Internally, an individual has a specific personality type and also a gender type. In general, individuals have access to both masculine and feminine qualities and thus tend to have a unique combination of traits associated with each type. A child is also influenced by a collective type of religious system that influence his/her understanding of reality as well as the meaning of sensory experiences, and different types of kinship systems (e.g., Eskimo, Hawaiian, Iroquois, Omaha, Sudanese), the later regulates the genetic make up as well as cultural norms of that child and potentially regulate his/her nutrition needs.
Externally, each child has a blood type (A, B, AB, O) and a body type (ectomorph, endomorph, mesomorph) these two types can be presumed to influence the chemical and sensorial reactions of a child to the world. In terms of external environment, each child exists in a specific ecological biome types (e.g., steppe, tundra, islands) and may have specific environmental sensorial needs (needing cold or hot temperatures, a certain type of natural stimuli, etc) and governmental regime types (e.g., communist, democracy, dictatorship, monarchy, republic) or social rules, which regulate the nature of sensory experiences, that are acceptable.
Types are stable and do not change, by becoming more aware of them and their role in a child’s sensory health, we could infuse sustainability into our efforts by tailoring them to the unique patterns of a child. For instance, considering introversion and extroversion can help us to shape what would be an appropriate sensory experience for a child.
These internal attributes all inform the “first-person” perspective of a Highly Sensitive Child. They will also influence the other two perspectives, the second-person and third-person perspective.
There are many types of sensory experiences that can influence a child (figure below).
Figure 7: illustrations of Sensory Experiences
While the list is not exhaustive, it may help a parent begin to observe during which of these experiences a child changes behaviour. Some of the most obvious are physical (bodily and biological) experiences, which relate to the “first-person” perspective. But in addition, there are mental (emotional, empathic and cognitive), social, spatial, temporal and mediated experiences. Each is informed by specific senses as is outlined in the figure below.
Figure 8: Relationship of Sensory Experiences to Specific Senses
According to the quadrivia approach, the second person perspective relates to how we absorb external experiences while the third-person perspective relates to our sensory awareness during these experiences. Before we can explore how a child’s “second-person” perspective is influenced by how he or she experiences the social and cultural environment, it is important to understand what is a sensory experience itself. But these sensory experiences are more or less acknowledged by our culture depending on the way we define the senses.
The next section will therefore focus on the senses themselves and how cultural and social regulations of our definitions of the senses influence our perceptions of sensory experiences. In other words, we will focus on the collective/external dimensions of sensory reality.
Layer 2: The Senses: Center Of A Complex Perceptual System
Our body acts as a sensory input device that allows us to understand the world. Our theory of mind is informed by sensory experiences. Feeling and thinking happens once these experiences have been processed.
There lies another difficulty to understanding the unique sensory experience of a child. What we understand as being the senses alters significantly our understanding of health and what we understand as the senses is culturally and socially regulated. These influences regulate we can accept as a sensory experience, and, depending on what is acknowledged as a sensory experience, it is more or less accepted as a valid sensory experience and instead considered a pathology. Part of the difficulty is that defining the senses themselves can be controversial.
Besides the five senses we are accustomed to: smell, sight, taste, hearing and touch, the scientific community now acknowledges others. There is an internal sense known as interoception (Craig, 2003)[xx]. This refers to “any sense that is normally stimulated from within the body”(Dunn et al, 2010)[xxi], for instance, sensing the subtle activities of our organs, blood flow, or energy within the body. According to the article Medical Mystery Surrounding Highly-Sensitive Kids … Solved? (Shelly, 2010)[xxii], we have additional kinesthetic senses: the sense of balance and coordinated movement (the vestibular system), and the positioning sense (the proprioceptive system). These senses allow us to know where we are in space and to move effortlessly and smoothly.
Pain is recognized as a sense, and spatial communication specific senses have also been acknowledged: sense of time, and sense of temperature (Ascott, 2010)[xxiii]. These allow us to sense airborne signatures, such as magnetic or other kinds of energy fields. Personal sensitivity and cultural learning influence how aware we are of these senses. For instance, as we saw earlier, the idea that energy can be felt is not common in the western world. However, energy reading is common in Asian culture and central to asian health and cultural understanding of being.
Some researchers are beginning to demonstrate that empathic and social senses are crucial to human societies (Kovács, Téglás and Endress, 2010)[xxiv] . These are particularly important to how a highly sensitive child perceives the world. For many highly sensitive children, suppressing empathy is unhealthy and can lead to illness, while for neurotypical individuals it allows a further separation between the rational and intuitive self, the later having been pathologized.
If space is filled with hidden fields of energy, people also have an energetic influence on each other. We know that living things produce magnetic fields and we have known for decades that animals have a magnetoception sense[xxv], which allows an organism to detect a magnetic field to perceive direction, altitude or location. For the purpose of navigation, magnetoception deals with the detection of the Earth’s magnetic field, it has been observed in bacteria, in invertebrates, and vertebrates including birds, turtles, sharks and stingrays. Yet, Magnetoception in humans is still considered controversial in some scientific circles.
Magnetoreception is hard to study. Quoted in the article “Humans have a magnetic sensor in our eyes, but can we detect magnetic fields?”, researcher Thorsten Ritz says, “Basic things that you do in other senses don’t make sense when it comes to magnetoreception. Almost every other sense is linked to an opening in bone structure – eyes, ears and so on. The magnetic sense could sit anywhere in the body because the magnetic field penetrates the body.” And to complicate matters, we are unsure about what a magnetic sense would be used for.
Nevertheless, some groups of scientists suppose that not only it exists, but that it is central to how we communicate. As early at 1967, scientist knew the heart produces a magnetic field[xxvi]. In the 1980s, Robin Baker from the University of Manchester carried out a series of experiments, which seemed to show that humans could sense magnetic fields (Baker, 1980)[xxvii]. His work was disputed but he did establish that we do somehow use magnetic fields.
More recently, Rollin McCraty, Director of Research at the Institute of HeartMath, established that our heart is a sensory organ to a type of bioelectromagnetic communication. The heart, like the brain, generates a powerful electromagnetic field, McCraty explains in article “The heart generates the largest electromagnetic field in the body.”[xxviii] HeartMath studies show this powerful electromagnetic field can be detected and measured several feet away from a person’s body and between two individuals in close proximity.
In a HeartMath study, “The Electricity of Touch: Detection and Measurement of Cardiac Energy Exchange Between People”[xxix], researchers set out to determine whether the heart’s electromagnetic field in one individual could be detected and measured in another person when the pair either were seated within about three feet of each other or held hands. The results were positive: The data showed “when people touch or are in proximity, a transference of the electromagnetic energy produced by the heart occurs,”[xxx]. The figure below illustrates the heart electromagnetic fields.
Figure 9: Heart Electromagnetic Fields
If we consider the skin as a major sensory organ, the purpose of magnetoreception begins to make more sense. If we consider that the skin senses all subtle forms of energy and can inform our being of what is around us, magneto reception could be the communication tool used to translate this data. While in animals this sense is understood to be a navigational tool, could it be that in humans it also serves to inform of danger emanating from the environment and other beings?
Some researchers, such as Johnjoe McFadden, go as far as to posit that consciousness exist in electromagnetic fields. McFadden’s “Electromagnetic Field Theory of Consciousness”[xxxi] suggests that consciousness represents a stream of information passing through the brain’s Electromagnetic field. Were this to be ever proven, electromagnetic fields would become recognized as another form of spatial communication as it would suggest that, not only do we generate Em fields, our consciousness is intertwined in these fields.
What the research findings mentioned above suggest, is that there is an invisible communication system that we are not aware of but that does influence us. If we can adapt to the idea that the senses are attuned to spatial communication, E. T. Halls’ model of social space, explored in chapter 5, changes. When this sensorial language is a heightened ability, the boundaries of personal space changes for each individual, probably extending its range from a distance of about 12ft to 24 ft.
While these ideas can seem farfetched, for a parent, this can be useful a useful idea in considering what invisible sensorial communication input may be affecting a child. Whether we accept that the senses can be a more complex system of communication than demonstrated at this time may influence our ability to help highly sensitive children.
As researchers continue to study the senses, it is very probable that more senses will be discovered. But if our cultural and social norms do not accept the existence of these senses, experiences associated with a heightened reaction to them could be understood as an illness, or a sign of rebellion when reactions or behaviours do not correspond to what is expected in a given context.
A Fluid Spectrum of Potential Senses
Many scientists and authors have already established the complexity of our multisensory life to be much more elaborate than we think or that scientific data suggest. Guy Murchie, for example, in his book The Seven Mysteries of Life[xxxii], enumerated 32 forms of sensing, which he assigned into 5 major categories: the radiation senses; the feeling senses (including proprioception); the chemical senses; the mental senses and the spiritual senses. As he wrote:
“A lot of people seem to think there can be none but the five traditional senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. In a way they are right, I suppose, if you assume that only the ones most obvious to humans are to be included. But surely there are more senses in Heaven and Earth than you or I have dreamed of. And I have increasingly had the feeling that the time has come when someone should pioneer into the subject as a whole with a fresh, untrammeled outlook. So, out of more than idle curiosity, I’ve jotted down a list of all I could think of and it came to 48, not even counting the “stage-in-space sense” previously described. Then, by combining the most closely related ones, I trimmed the number to 32. Of course a lot depends on how one defines a sense, and on arbitrary choices, like whether you decide to lump the sense of warmth and coolness or the sense of dryness and dampness in with the sense of feeling, and whether you want to include the senses (or are they instincts?) that animals, plants and (conceivably) rocks have but most humans evidently don’t.
Building upon Murchie’s work, others, such as Dr. M. Cohen[xxxiii] have identified more natural senses. The table below combines the two (the bolded items are Cohen’s contribution).
The Radiation Senses
- Sense of light and sight, including polarized light.
2. Sense of seeing without eyes such as heliotropism or the sun sense of plants.
3. Sense of color.
4. Sense of moods and identities attached to colors.
5. Sense of awareness of one’s own visibility or invisibility and consequent camouflaging.
6. Sensitivity to radiation other than visible light including radio waves, X rays, etc.
7. Sense of Temperature and temperature change.
8. Sense of season including ability to insulate, hibernate and winter sleep.
9. Electromagnetic sense and polarity which includes the ability to generate current (as in the nervous system and brain waves) or other energies.
The Feeling Senses
- Hearing including resonance, vibrations, sonar and ultrasonic frequencies.
11. Awareness of pressure, particularly underground, underwater, and to wind and air.
12. Sensitivity to gravity.
13. The sense of excretion for waste elimination and protection from enemies.
14. Feel, particularly touch on the skin.
15. Sense of weight, gravity and balance.
16. Space or proximity sense.
17. Coriolus sense or awareness of effects of the rotation of the Earth.
18. Sense of motion. Body movement sensations and sense of mobility
The Chemical Senses
- Smell with and beyond the nose.
20. Taste with and beyond the tongue.
21. Appetite or hunger for food, water and air.
22. Hunting, killing or food obtaining urges.
23. Humidity sense including thirst, evaporation control and the acumen to find water or evade a flood.
24. Hormonal sense, as to pheromones and other chemical stimuli.
The Mental Senses
- Pain, external and internal.
26. Mental or spiritual distress.
27. Sense of fear, dread of injury, death or attack.
(25-27 are attractions to seek additional natural attractions in order to support and strengthen well-being. Attractions to run for your life.)
28. Procreative urges including sex awareness, courting, love, mating, paternity and raising young.
29. Sense of play, sport, humor, pleasure and laughter.
30. Sense of physical place, navigation senses including detailed awareness of land and seascapes, of the positions of the sun, moon and stars.
31. Sense of time and rhythm.
32. Sense of electromagnetic fields.
33. Sense of weather changes.
34. Sense of emotional place, of community, belonging, support, trust and thankfulness.
35. Sense of self including friendship, companionship, and power.
36. Domineering and territorial sense.
37. Colonizing sense including compassion and receptive awareness of one’s fellow creatures, sometimes to the degree of being absorbed into a superorganism.
38. Horticultural sense and the ability to cultivate crops, as is done by ants that grow fungus, by fungus who farm algae, or birds that leave food to attract their prey.
39. Language and articulation sense, used to express feelings and convey information in every medium from the bees’ dance to human literature.
40. Sense of humility, appreciation, ethics.
41. Senses of form and design.
42. Sense of reason, including memory and the capacity for logic and science.
43. Sense of mind and consciousness.
44. Intuition or subconscious deduction.
45. Aesthetic sense, including creativity and appreciation of beauty, music, literature, form, design and drama.
46. Psychic capacity such as foreknowledge, clairvoyance, clairaudience, psychokinesis, astral projection and possibly certain animal instincts and plant sensitivities.
47. Sense of biological and astral time, awareness of past, present and future events.
48. The capacity to hypnotize other creatures.
49. Relaxation and sleep including dreaming, meditation, brain wave awareness.
50. Sense of pupation including cocoon building and metamorphosis.
51. Sense of excessive stress and capitulation.
52. Sense of survival by joining a more established organism.
The Spiritual Senses
53. Spiritual sense, including conscience, capacity for sublime love, ecstasy, a sense of sin, profound sorrow and sacrifice.
54. Sense of unity, of natural attraction aliveness as the singular essence/spirit and source of all our other senses (NNIAAL).
These different approaches to the senses can make our work as parents very difficult. Connecting a sensory sensitivity to a “non” typical sense can make a discussion with health professionals, who do know acknowledge its existence, difficult. Nonetheless, it is important to constantly remind ourselves that how a highly sensitive child process this information is atypical and often defies cultural norms and to be open to explore a sensory spectrum that is not always recognized as real.
Given that a sensorial sensitivity can overwhelmed the individual and prevent that person from navigating the other dimensions of beings, a child’s unique sensory processing characteristics must be understood prior to the other elements of health. Similarly to an individual who can not hear or see will have a much different perception of reality than someone who does, children with heightened senses will not interact with the world in a “normalized” fashion but in a sensory fashion.
Thus, our health model includes the senses as a dimension between the environment and how the body is going to react to sensory input. As is shown in the figure below, the environment and identity of a person is filtered through the senses that will convert sensory inputs into sensory messages that the brain processes to engage either the cognitive or emotive aspect of the mind. From these processes a particular perception of reality will arise. If we can understand which sense is involved in the process of overstimulating a highly sensitive child, we can then alter the environment to reduce sensory the overload.
Figure 10: Sensory Experiences
7. kinesthetic: balance and coordinated movement (the vestibular system), and the positioning sense (the proprioceptive system),
Thankfully some research is beginning to document how differently a highly sensitive person processes sensory information. For instance, according to the research of Jagiellowicz and his group, highly sensitive people process visual images in more depth than others. In their case, images are transformed into thoughts about those images when the brain associates the images with input from other senses, as well as with emotional reactions. This research found that when highly sensitive people looked at visual scenes, they showed significantly greater activation in brain areas involved in associating visual input with other input to the brain and with visual attention (i.e., right claustrum; left occipito-temporal; bilateral temporal, medial, and posterior parietal regions). These areas are not simply used for vision itself, but for a deeper processing of input. Such research suggests that what makes some people sensitive is a difference in what is going on at a deep level of processing[xxxiv].
This deeper level of sensory processing can perceive subtle visual information others cannot see such as human emitted light. Researchers have discovered that we are subtle light sources. According to Japanese researchers[xxxv], the human body literally glimmers. But the intensity of the light emitted by the body is 1000 times lower than the sensitivity of our naked eyes. Ultraweak photon emission is known as the energy released as light through the changes in energy metabolism. The researchers successfully imaged the diurnal change of this ultraweak photon emission with an improved highly sensitive imaging system using cryogenic charge-coupled device (CCD) camera. The researchers found the body glow rose and fell over the day, with its lowest point at 10 a.m. and its peak at 4 p.m., dropping gradually after that. These findings suggest there is light emission linked to our body clocks, most likely due to how our metabolic rhythms fluctuate over the course of the day.
In addition, other researchers[xxxvi] have demonstrated the existence of spontaneous and visible light-induced ultraweak photon emission from freshly isolated whole eye, lens, vitreous humor, and retina samples from rats. This research shows that the mammalian eye itself actually emits light – biophotons – which contain energy and information (wave-particle complementary of light), capable of transforming our understanding of one another, and ourselves. A friend of mine can see this subtle light around people and she explained to me that it changes based on their mood. For example, she recognizes anger as having a specific color.
This deeper level of processing is going to greatly influence a highly sensitive child’s sense of reality and behaviour, particularly if the child doesn’t have the language nor understanding to decode this sensory input into a coherent sensory message. When this light emits toxic messages, a highly sensitive child will be affected at much deeper levels than we think and potentially create major stress.
Researchers also know that extraocular light impacts human brain functioning[xxxvii]. Light also affects cells. A few studies have reported that cells use photons (light) as information carriers and a cellular communication system based on light (Fels, 2009) exists. And this system can affect our body at a cellular level, our mind and our sense of other. Such research is essential in helping understand what is triggering over or understimulation in highly sensitive children. Given their heightened sensory processing capacity, toxic input can affect them at the core of their being, mentally, physically, or at a cellular level, changing their body towards sickness.
Thus helping highly sensitive children does not only entail focusing solely on their person, the quadriatic approach “first-person” perspective. Given their heightened empathy and sensing of subtle energy, it is important to consider the sensory quality of their social experiences and what they perceive from the “second-person” perspective. As we will see next.
Sensory Experiences of Social and Cultural Contexts
Taking a deep look at our family lives, and cultural contexts, and given their heightened sensory capacities, also examining the physical environments they live in, for potential toxic experiences is crucial to understanding the environment that is influencing highly sensitive children’s behaviour. Particularly important aspects of sensory experience to explore are familial experiences, as they can often hide high level of stress for a highly sensitive child.
A type of experience that is crucial yet somewhat invisible is the nature of our social life since highly sensitive people have a stronger activation of brain regions involved in awareness, empathy, and self-other processing (Acevedo et al, 2014)[xxxviii]. Awareness and responsiveness are fundamental features of highly sensitive people. This means that our highly sensitive children will have stronger responses to their experience of the social world than other children.
According to Angie Voss, sensory kids are little emotional sponges and co-regulate via those around them. If you are stressed or upset or angry, the child is sure to feel it, 100 times more than a child without sensory processing challenges.
This empathic awareness and responsiveness is however selective. Aron’s team discovered that highly sensitive individuals process information about close others and positive emotions more thoroughly. The researchers postulate that:
“Perhaps this greater response to close others’ positive emotions explains their unusual susceptibility to positive social environments (Pluess and Belsky 2013)[xxxix]. Whether learned or innate, individuals with greater SPS appear to be reducing their reactions to negative emotional information that may not be particularly salient, as for strangers versus close others. (…) activation of regions involved in awareness, higher order processing, and action planning suggest that HSPs are attentive and preparing to respond to their partner’s needs when happy or sad.”(Acevedo et al, 2014)[xl]
This implies that relationships to family members are extremely influential on the well being of highly sensitive children. The first a child is exposed to and that are vital to self-formation are the relationships to the immediate family. One of the hidden sources of distress of our highly sensitive children can be ourselves. Indeed, the source of our children’s problems can come from the harshness of our own emotions, due to economic or social stressors, which are affecting a child’s empathy. As Family Therapist Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D writes:
“Turning to medication when a child is having trouble at school or feeling sad has become as American as apple pie.(…)
Lately, however, an alternative point of view has been gaining more acceptance. This is the notion that family stress — marital problems, financial issues, illness or injury of a parent, and so forth — can be toxic to children and is at the root of many childhood emotional and behavioral problems. Family therapists have been working with this idea for half of century. But now, many people who are not family therapists but who are concerned with the well-being of children are taking this view seriously. Huffington Post writer Lisa Belkin, for example, discussed this topic in a recent Parentlode column.
Instead of viewing a child’s problem as strictly a biological disorder — whether genetic, epigenetic or biochemical — family therapists find that they can help children best by looking at the child’s nurturing environment. A family is a complex system and, as in all complex systems, a change in one part of the system affects the other parts. For example, a few weeks ago, 4-year-old boy Paulie was in my office because his preschool teacher thought he had ADHD. Paulie had had a personality change seemingly overnight. From a sweet well-behaved child, he changed into to a little monster who wouldn’t obey his teacher’s simplest request. When I asked Paulie what was troubling him, he said he was worried about his father because his father had lost his job and cried all day.
Some people may be amazed that a 4-year old child could be so tuned in to his father and have behavior problems because of a father losing his job. To a family therapist, however, this kind of situation is business as usual. We see it every day. “(Wedge, 2011)[xli]
According to HSP Health, social stresses are common and varied for highly sensitive people. Some more common ones are moving, adding to the family, marriage, divorce, family members having difficulties, heavy social expectations, etc [xlii]. This suggests that our own self-reflection and self-awareness is essential to our highly sensitive children’s well being. Here lies another difficulty, it is much harder to look at ourselves and deal with our own stressors and toxic behaviours than to look at those of another. Yet, without this work, we may continue to unintentionally harm our children despite medications, therapies, etc.
But social stress is only one of the many types of stress that can affect a highly sensitive child. Besides social lives, the environment must also be considered, the world having a very important influence on a highly sensitive child. According to HSP health, HSPs suffer from typical everyday stresses and some types of stress unique to them due to their different biological makeup. The most common types of stress include: physical stress, emotional stress, mental stress, social stress, process and time stress, cultural, systemic and value stress, elements we will now examine.
Environmental or World Experiences: Space as Powerful Sensory Input
Another important part of the process is to begin to observe within which environment a child is comfortable in and which one he/she is not.
Researchers Nilda Cosco and Robin Moore explain that well-being is a balance between health human processes (psychological, physical, spiritual) and healthy environments (landscapes, weather, built environments, and the social circumstances of daily life) (Cosco and Moore, 2009)[xliii]. They consider that physical environments and behaviour (physiological response to stimuli) are indissolubly linked and that behaviours can emerge from our interactions with the environment. Their spatial and temporal boundaries are identifiable and their functions are independent of other adjacent ‘eco-behaviours”.
This can explain why highly sensitive children’s behaviours seem unlike other children in certain situations. The sensory input they receive from the environment has a deeper impact on how these children formulate their sense of self, their identity and how they perceive reality.
The differences in the attention a highly sensitive child gives to the processing of sensory information means that experiencing the subtle qualities of the world at large influences his or her well being:
“A number of researchers are finding that children who are highly sensitive and raised in a stressful environment are prone to anxiety and depression, which are the components of neuroticism, and to shyness, which is sometimes the cause of introversion. However, when raised in an enriched, supportive environment, those with this “differential susceptibility” are actually happier, healthier, and more socially skilled than others. In both outcomes, it seems that sensitive children are paying more attention to subtle cues indicating, for better or worse, what others are thinking and feeling.” (Stoney Brook, 2010)[xliv]
This reinforces the importance of observing and reflecting on the spatial, temporal, and social environment of a child. Schools, daycare, community centers, stores, malls and other social spaces (particularly new contexts) that children attend can be subtle sensory traps (too much noise, visual stimulation, unusual heat, smells, ambient lighting, large amount of chemical trails from products, etc). For highly sensitive children they can also be spaces where their empathy is overloaded by other peoples’ emotions. As with our own lives, it is important to evaluate the quality of the environments with the specific sensory triggers of a child in mind and to provide solutions for the distressing sensory input, such as headphones, caps, etc. It is also important to evaluate the environment for subtle toxic inputs such as air born pollution, or any sensory-based pollution (noise, visual, heat, clutter etc) or people stress.
These dimensions can have positive or negative impact on the senses, the key is to examine whether a balance exist between these dimensions and whether they are saturating a highly sensitive child’s senses.
As aboriginal health models suggest, a connection to nature is crucial to health. Given that they are inter-connected with the world, it is important to insure highly sensitive children have access to nature. This in order to help them balance the senses and feed them with the natural and uncensored sensory input they crave.
A child who has no access to nature may be overwhelmed due to a lack of natural sensory inputs. It is known that natural and green spaces help children to better focus (Kuo and Taylor, 2009)[xlv]. Such research introduces an environmental/spatial dimension to a health models. It is working within a “social ecology of the landscape model” that creates an important dimension to how children make sense of their world: time and space. This model recognizes that children perceive the world via experiences, learned skills and spatial understanding (Moore and Young, 1978 [xlvi]).
Allowing children to experience the natural and man-made elements in their living environments would generate cognitive, social, and physical skills developments. According to Moore and Wong (1997), play in outdoor environments stimulates all aspects of children’s development more readily than indoor environments. Moore (1986) also claims that children who play in nature have more positive feelings about each other. [xlvii] Nature is also the place where children can develop feelings for the animal and plant kingdoms and develop a holistic sense of empathy for these other species.
From a sensory lens, children calibrate their senses from inputs that emerge out of the environment. When children are outside, they respond to their environment intuitively, they move within nature, climbing trees for example.
But other elements are important. Architecture and the nature of our living spaces have a greater influence on our sensory health than we think. Urban landscape research indicates a relationship between sensory perception of natural environments and human health. One hypothesis is that people perceive green spaces in terms of certain dimensions, where some dimensions are more important and preferred than others with respect to restoring people from stress. (Grahna and Stigdotterb, 2010).[xlviii] One study aimed to identify and describe the perceived dimensions in nature; identify which dimensions people in general prefer; and identify a combination of the dimensions people reporting stress prefer. The results identified and described eight perceived sensory dimensions: Serene, Space, Nature, Rich in Species, Refuge, Culture, Prospect and Social. . People in general prefer the dimension Serene. The dimensions Refuge and Nature are most strongly correlated with stress, indicating a need to find the most restorative environments. A combination of Refuge, Nature and Rich in Species, and a low or no presence of Social, could be interpreted as the most restorative environment for stressed individuals.
In the world of children, Architectural researcher Hazreena Hussein[xlix] studied the use of sensory s by children with special educational needs. This study found that users spent a longer time in zones where sensory, rather than aesthetic value, was emphasized. As Hussein retraces, researchers have for over 15 years explored the implications of the built environment and children’s active living.’ (Gibson and Pick[l], 2000).
Researchers Gibson and Pick introduced three concepts that can help us understand these implications: affordance, information and pickup information. Affordance is defined as the functionally significant properties of physical opportunities and dangers, in which an organism perceives while acting in a specific setting (Gibson and Pick, 2000; Heft, 2001[li]; Kytta, 2003[lii]). The environment features as a property of the relationship between the environment and the users and the possibilities that a place can offer users, whether or not the landscape architects intended those possibilities. Thus the importance to ‘examine the relationship between the functional properties of the environment and how environments are used’ (Clark and Uzzel[liii], 2002:95) as it can help us to understand the impact of the physical environment on children and to identify environmental attributes that are associated with specific behavioural responses.’ (Gibson and Pick, 2000).
In addition, the environment provides information to children. As Hussein[liv] explains, the environment provides information as ambient arrays of energy that is structured by surfaces, boundaries, events, objects and layout of the environment (Gibson and Pick, 2000). The information perceived changes depending on the perceiver’s movement (sitting, standing, walking, etc.) and their senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell). These changes are essential for identifying, extracting and describing information about where one is, where one is going and what one is accomplishing. For example, users passing through the sensory garden often stop for a while to engage with the features that are adjacent to the pathway. Their engagement enables them to experience different views of the garden.
Finally, children pick up information either in an exploratory and performatory manner (Gibson and Pick, 2000). As Hussein explains: the former permits children to discover the new properties of the environment and also about their own capabilities, while the latter is the outcome of already learned affordances and this relates to actions directed towards objects or an individual(s) within a setting for an intended purpose, for example, throwing, hitting, etc. “Perception and action are closely intertwined in both exploration and performance, and learning is an important outcome of both types of action” (Gibson and Pick, 2000:21). This explains why researcher Sebba articulated that: “Children judge the natural setting not by its aesthetics but by how they interact with the environment” (Sebba, 1991[lv]). Our visual culture imposes visual aesthetics as the norm and in this process impoverishes the sensorial experiences of space. As Hussein wrote:
“Landscape architects think that aesthetic value should be the key goal but ‘sensory value’ is the crucial design aspect, given that users are engaged with the features, and are involved with greater use of their senses than just the visual and appreciation of the aesthetics. What the site or features look like visually is much less important than how it feels, sounds, smells and tastes, as users, who get access to the features are very important.”[lvi]
While for centuries, we have designed our spaces from a disembodied visual aesthetics; we need to design spaces that children inhabit from an experiential perspective that includes sensory and spatial considerations. A sensory gifted child, and I would argue any child, is not born to care about the visual aesthetics of a garden as he/she uses the features the way he/she wants to use them. When examining the sensory well being of a highly sensitive child, it is important to question the quality of their environment from this experiential spatial perspective. Do the highly child have access to green space within the home and outside the home? How sensory rich is that environment for that child’s sensory needs?
Aspects of our culture also influences sensory health. Living conditions, financial issues, cultural pressures, etc, all play a role in health. As Pip Waller explains:
“For most systems of medicine in the world, the spirit is in charge, healing must happen in the spirit and healing comes from the spirit. You are your body, but you are more than your body: your thoughts and feelings affect your physical reality far more than you may realize. You do not exist in isolation: your relationships, from the beginning of your life to the present, have formed and continue to form you. If your family is sick, you are affected. If your community is sick, you are affected. If your society is sick, you are affected. “(Waller, 2010, p. 318)[lvii]
With no uniform definition, culture and tradition are fluid concepts and often change over the lifespan. It is not an easy theme to capture within health determinants, however, it is a necessary determinant for health. Part of the issue is helping our children understand that their anxieties and suffering is located across time but also across a much larger system as Gabord Mate explains:
“If individuals are part of a multigenerational family system, families and individuals are also parts of a much larger whole: the culture and society in which they live. The functioning of human beings can no more be isolated from the larger social context than can that of a bee in a hive. It is not enough, therefore, to stop at the family system as if it determined the health of its members without regard to the social, economic and cultural forces that shape family life.”[lviii]
Since Highly Sensitive children are not responding healthily to typical acculturation and socialization, as parents we must learn to begin to heal the generational pain that culture, traditions and families can generate. This generational pain must be addressed and acknowledged in order to be eventually overcome in order to be able to begin the process of healing essential to our children’s well-being and self-realization.
As we saw in chapter 3, researchers have observed that both the gifted, highly sensitive people, introverts, autistics and ADHD kids share a common attribute, which is to not respond well to socialization or acculturation. (Aron, 2010 [lix]; Dabrowski, 1967[lx]; Hartmann, 2003[lxi]). Given the normalized suppression of empathy, and that these children operate from a place of empathy based on an acute awareness of themselves, their environments and other beings, it seems logical that to survive, their being must trump cultural and social suppressive ways.
Our sensory gifted children must be given a safe space where they can explore life outside of typical acculturation and socialization which can seriously damage them.
This not fitting within culture can create cultural stress. Cultural stress is created when there is a poor fit between the person and their societal structures. It can also emerge from competitive culture, activities and rituals, expectations of conformity around marriage, parenting, and life purpose.[lxii]
Culture can damage highly sensitive children in other ways. Cultural discourse is integrated or rejected in the being of a highly sensitive person at a much deeper level. To a highly sensitive child cultural lessons are often anxiety producing as the child will consider the narrative within a broader more holistic perspective than just discursive and social. For instance, lets take how schools discuss the environment. The education children receive is to help forge in them values of “green” life. I have witness my child coming home quite distraught at the impact we are having on animals and all living things, which are affected by our actions. Of course most children feel this way, but a highly sensitive child’s empathy make them feel this as a terrible internal pain. Many of these children may be focusing on the impact to the animals and thinking about their pain.
Another type of stress that can come from our culture is what HSP health refers to as process stress. Process stress refers to any situation, which is poorly, managed resulting in lots of crises and unnecessary problems. Often process stress comes from our relationship with institutions but it can occur in any area of our lives. Many people experience process stress in working with our healthcare system.
Depending on the culture around sensory experiences, a child can learn to cope or to suppress these inputs. Cultural learning that does not support sensorial literacy puts them at a disadvantage. It leads their emotions towards negative emotions and stress and their believes also become negative, plague with self doubt and low self-esteem as their way of being and perceiving tends to be defined as a disability or illness. Thus the importance for us as parents to be willing to suspend out own cultural understanding of the senses.
There is another dimension to be incorporated in what is referred to as our environment, as space is no longer just green/architectural, it now has an important mediated dimension, which must be addressed.
Mediated Spatial Experiences
Two kinds of mediated spatial experiences influence how a child behaves. First, the mediation parents provide with the environment. From their birth, parents, particularly mothers, play an important role in soothing a child and mediating their experiences. Parents are sensory buffers who physically protect their children but also offer a model as to how to understand certain stimuli. Sometimes, a simple touch, or word, can help a child reposition him or herself within his or her body. This may explain why children with heightened senses are often reluctant to experience the world without their parents.
Second, we must consider the mediation technology offers to the child. Especially within urban settings, we live in a spatial man-made reality that our bodies and senses were not designed to live in. While each new generation is slowly adapting to these innovations, the current rate of change is accelerating.
Technology has an important place in our notions of identity. According to Roy Ascott[lxiii], through our engagement with Second Life and other virtual worlds and virtual communities, we have a sense not simply of being distributed a-synchronically but of being multiple, with multiple identities, effectively rejecting the existential single-self. Increasingly we recognize that we inhabit phase-space, and live in non-linear time. Indeed, virtual spaces such as Minecraft are social playground where children embody their technological self.
An important aspect of media and technology is there social role. We now exist in a matrix of individual and collective uses of media reinforce certain cultures and social norms but can also influence our perception of experiences and alter our behaviours. Thus, it exists as its own dimension, an extra layer that influences how we exist bodily and in space as seen in the figure below.
Our technologies and forms of communication are changing faster than our sensorial bodies can adapt. Today, these systems of communication are overloaded with technological energies and messages. Our most innate and intimate communication system has been colonized and to a large extend polluted.
Not only do highly sensitive children define themselves through space, spatial signals nourish their senses and are vital to their well being. When space is polluted, the senses take in these toxins and become irritated but when space is clean, the senses harmonize with the environment. These inputs affect the calibration of the senses and the balance of the health determinants, which, in turn, influence how one can perceive, process and respond to spatial communication signals. As we saw, anxiety, for instance, leads to the release of stress hormones that recalibrate the senses to a “fight or flight” state. Sensitivities increase, pain and/or irritability become a dominant sensation and our interactions with the world become negative. But when well being is achieved, happy hormones are flowing and our senses read the environment in a way that promotes and increase harmony with the environment.
According to the news article “What’s wifi doing to us? Experiment finds that shrubs die when placed next to wireless routers”[lxiv], some are beginning to express serious concerns regarding wifi signals and the health of plants and animals. One research study, driven by the municipality of Alphen aan den Rijn, in Holland, tried to explain abnormalities on trees in the city, including bark-like tumor nodules. The TU Delft, TNO, Alphen aan den Rijn and Wageningen University’s study showed that that trees exposed to wireless radio signals suffered from damaged bark and dying leaves. Trees placed closest to the Wi-Fi radio developed a ‘lead-like shine’ on their leaves that was caused by the dying of the upper and lower epidermis. This would eventually result in the death of parts of the leaves, the study found. In the Netherlands, about 70 per cent of all trees in urban areas show the same symptoms, compared with only 10 per cent five years ago, the study found. Trees in densely forested areas are not affected.
But scientists have expressed scepticism about research such as this. Nevertheless for a highly sensitive person these findings may be very important as this suggests that these signals have more of an effect on the environment than we realize. What this means long term is unknown. But given how central digital life is to many children’s lives, these findings can indicate that children are being constantly doused in low-level magnetic radiation.
In the article “This Is What Wifi Signals Would Look Like If We Could See Them”, M. Browning Vogel, Ph.D., an astrobiologist and former employee at NASA Ames explains:
“Wifi is an energy field that is transmitted as waves. The waves have a certain height, distance between them and travel at a certain speed. The distance between wifi waves is shorter than that of radio waves and longer than that of microwaves, giving wifi a unique transmission band that can’t be interrupted by other signals. (…)
Wifi waves travel through space as rapid, data encoded pulses or waves. (…) Wifi routers are basically antenna that can send data over multiple frequencies all at the same time. (…) The data from these multiple frequencies swirls around in space as shown here, but can be translated using a common tag system understood by wireless devices.“ [lxv]
For highly sensitive children, the undetectable waves may be detectable and influence sensory processes.
The Behavioural Dimension of Sensing
The first clue sensory experiences may be unbalanced is a child’s behaviour. An over-stimulated child who does not yet have the literacy nor the words to express sensory distress will turn to “out of control” behaviours to indicate something is wrong. If as a parent we can learn to recognize that cue, we can then turn our attention to the child’s experience in that specific situation.
When a child’s behaviour changes, parents should try to understand what in his/her experience is unusual. Using the four quadrants as a guide, we can begin to ask ourselves questions related to his/her experience, to his/her behaviour, and to their social and cultural dimensions. If away from home, what new stimuli has been introduced? If at home, is it happening in a specific room or social situation? Who was there, how are they feeling, is the room hot, cold, full of technologies? Did the child react after eating or coming home from a lot of stimuli? Etc.
Nonetheless, understanding why our children’s behaviours change is not necessarily an easy process. First because the sensory causes of the discomfort are hidden, but also because our medical culture does not recognize the side effects the senses can have on us as needing to be addressed. In skipping this step, medications, disabilities and pathologies are quickly assigned to a child whose sensory life is simply too intense. Yet, the way our nervous system deals with sensory input can influence many aspects of our being: from motor skills, cognitive skills, learning and our perceptions of the world.
The Nervous System: A Hub of Complex Sensorial Processes
Three distinct sensory processes actually take place that a parent can explore to be able to analyze a highly sensitive child’s sensory discomfort: sensory processing, sensory integration and sensory modulation. These three processes should be examined prior to considering other quadrants of health as when they are imbalanced, the physiology as well as emotional, psychological and genetic aspects of well-being may be affected. Let’s start with some definitions.
Sensory processing represents the way we deal with information processing (Ayers 1989)[lxvi]. According to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation[lxvii], sensory processing refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioural responses[lxviii]. Sensory processing is a neurological process that organizes sensation from one’s body and the environment and makes it possible to use the body effectively within the environment. It includes three steps:
- Recognizing sensory information from any sensory systems;
- Interpreting the sensory information;
- Creating a motor response to the sensory information.
According to Elaine Aron, Ph.D., Barbara Allen-Williams, and Jacquelyn Strickland, LPC , Highly sensitive people have a sensory processing sensitivity:
“Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS, HSP, or Highly Sensitive Person) is not a condition, a disorder, or a diagnosis. It is a neutral trait that evolved in 20% of the human population and many non-human species as well, because it is a survival advantage in some situations and not in others. Their survival strategy is to process information (stimuli) more thoroughly than others do, for which there is considerable evidence. This can certainly lead to overstimulation and possibly efforts to protect one’s self against that. However, SPS is not a disorder, but a reasonable strategy.”[lxix]
While heightened sensory sensitivity is not a disorder, a highly sensitive child who is in a state of constant overload of sensory input, or social/cultural stress will begin to have a different body chemistry and brain balance and could eventually be traumatized. As a result, he or she may begin to show signs of a sensory disorder. This makes diagnostic of a highly sensitive child difficult. The process of diagnostic itself may change the child’s behaviour and fit the criteria that the medical profession has categorized as ADHD, autism, etc. Part of the confusion is that all involve intense reactions to what the senses, spatial and social awareness read.
Elaine Aron, Ph.D., Barbara Allen-Williams, and Jacquelyn Strickland, LPC provide clues that can help parents analyse what is happening to their child. As they explain:
“HSPs process stimuli in a highly organized, big picture way, which includes awareness of nuances and subtleties that others might not notice. Again, at times, HSPs can become extremely overstimulated by the sheer amount of information they may be asked to process. Non-HSPs in our society, who make up about 80% of the general population, do not experience the same level of overstimulation that causes distress to HSPs, and therefore we might say that the amount of stimulation in the environment is set up for the other 80%, not for HSPs.
Sensory Processing (Integration) Disorder, on the other hand, is a neurological disorder. (…) It causes sensory information to get “mixed up” in the brain resulting in responses that are inappropriate in the context in which they find themselves. This can include random and disorganized processing of external stimuli, and can cause great distress, intensity and overstimulation. This overstimulation is sometimes confused with the overstimulation HSPs clearly experience, but it should be noted that the root cause of the overstimulation is not the same.” [lxx]
Thus the importance of studying your child and to create a “sensory sensitivity” profile and to spend the time to learn what are his/her sensory stressors, what behaviours relate to which stress and to eliminate the sensory toxins from your child’s environment as much as possible.
The following section explains the subtle nuances in sensory processing disorders. It may be useful to help understand what is happening to your child and which sensory process is being compromised. This can be helpful both in becoming literate about sensory health and to understand which aspect of sensory processes requires to be addressed via a sensory diet.
Once sensory input has been processed, it needs to be integrated and organized. In occupational therapy the term sensory integration is used to describe this “organization of sensation for use… (so that) the brain can use those sensations to form perceptions, behaviours, and learning” (Ayres, 1979, p.5)[lxxi]. Yack, Sutton and Aquilla (2002) describe it as follows:
“Sensory integration is a neurological process that occurs in all of us. We all take in sensory information from our bodies and the world around us. Our brains are programmed to organize or “integrate’’ this sensory information to make it meaningful to us. This integration allows us to respond automatically efficiently, and comfortably in response to the specific sensory input we receive.” (2002,p21)[lxxii]
Sensory Integration “use” affects our perception of the body or the world, our adaptive response, our learning process, and the development of some neural function. Through sensory integration, the many parts of the nervous system work together so that a person can interact with the environment effectively and experience appropriate satisfaction (Ayres, revised and updated by Pediatric Therapy Network, 2005).
While sensory integration is often considered similar to sensory processing, since they both influence our behaviours, it does affect us differently. Sensory processing influences our motor responses. While sensory integration affects our cognitive abilities: our perception of the world and learning abilities.
The “Pyramid of Development” developed by Taylor and Trott (1991) shows the importance of integration in a child’s development.
|Figure 11: Taylor and Trott’s Pyramid of Development|
It is recognized that the integration of the sensory systems is the prerequisite for all higher level skills. The lower levels of the pyramids are the foundations /building blocks of development. They greatly influence a child’s ability to integrate higher-level skills. When they are not functioning optimally, or are “Out of Sync”, the symptoms they create can be misunderstood as learning disability or mental health problems.
Finally, modulation is another important distinct sensorial process that most directly influences our ability to pay attention and focus. Modulation is the brain’s regulation of sensory input. It helps us to regulate our level of attention and concentration by filtering out background distractions, focusing on important sensory information and regulating how much sensory input we are exposed to. In the article “Modulation: we all do it, but how well?!”, this useful analogy is given:
“ One common analogy for modulation is likening it to the volume control on a radio. We would turn the volume up to enhance important incoming sensory information or turn the volume down to inhibit unimportant incoming sensory information. Let’s take sitting in a classroom for example. A child who can modulate appropriately would be enhancing the sound of the teacher’s instructions, whilst inhibiting the background noise of the air conditioner humming and the groundskeeper mowing outside. Furthermore, the child wouldn’t be paying any attention whatsoever to the feel of the tag on the bag of their shirts or brightness of the fluorescent bulbs. This modulation would all be happening automatically for them, happening on a subconscious level and requiring no effort or attention to occur.
Some children may not be able to modulate their senses so efficiently. For some, a little bit of sensory information may actually feel like A LOT. These are the over-sensitive (hypersensitive) children who may be distressed by unpredictable sounds and noisy surroundings, they may avoid being touched by others or they may fear movement activities such as swings.
On the other end of the scale are the children where a lot feels like A LITTLE. These are the under-sensitive (hyposensitive) children who often seek lots of sensory input (sensory seeking), such as engaging in messy play, seeking lots of movement or mouthing objects. They may not be able to consciously register certain sensory input (low registration), such as someone giving them instructions or tapping them on the shoulder, and may often appear daydreamy and lazy. Children with low registration commonly have difficulties with low muscle tone and poor body awareness.””[lxxiii]
Sensory modulation is an important part of the puzzle as difficulties with sensory modulation may often result in social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. According to Dr. Sutton[lxxiv], Any sensory modulation imbalance affect the ability to regulate and organize the degree, intensity and nature of responses to sensory input in a graded and adaptive manner. It also strongly influences arousal levels. Modulation must be maintained for people to maintain an optimal range of performance and to adapt to challenges in everyday life. Sensory modulation can impact academic learning, social interactions and self-esteem.
While the concept of a disruption in sensory modulation (SMD) has become an important topic in mental health, sensory disruption can be tied to different senses. If we understand which sense is affected, we can begin to develop strategies to help a child learn to self-regulate this difference in an aware and educated way.
Sensory Sensitivities and Disruption
In the presentation “Using Sensory Interventions To Support Recovery”, Dr Sutton[lxxv], identifies 3 types of sensorial perceptions: Interoception, which relates to awareness of one’s internal state (ie. hunger, tiredness, illness); Exteroception, relating to awareness of the world in relation to one’s self: ‘Distal’ senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch); and proprioception addressing awareness of one’s body in relation to the world (works with vestibular and tactile input): the ‘Proximal’ senses (body scheme, movement, orientation).
These three types of perceptions are important to understand as they dictate how we feel in the world and when disrupted can lead to behavioural difficulties. Researchers have identified three patterns of sensorial disruptions that correlate to these three forms of perception, which are summarized below (Miller et al., 2007)[lxxvi]. Bolded are elements parents can use as clues of issues related to their child’s behaviours.
Pattern 1: Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD)
Sensory modulation occurs as the central nervous system regulates the neural messages about sensory stimuli. SMD results when a person has difficulty responding to sensory input with behaviour that is graded relative to the degree, nature, or intensity of the sensory information. Responses are inconsistent with the demands of the situation, and inflexibility adapting to sensory challenges encountered in daily life is observed. Difficulty achieving and maintaining a developmentally appropriate range of emotional and attentional responses often occurs.
An important challenge is that overactive and impulsive symptoms in sensory sensitivities can easily be confused with (and often co-occur with) attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Pattern 2: Sensory Discrimination Disorder (SDD)
People with SDD have difficulty interpreting qualities of sensory stimuli and are unable to perceive similarities and differences among stimuli. They can perceive that stimuli are present and can regulate their response to stimuli but cannot tell precisely what or where the stimulus is.
SDD can be observed in any sensory modality. A person with SDD may have different capacities in each modality (e.g., a visual or auditory discrimination disorder but good discrimination in all other modalities).
Traditional models of sensory discrimination focus on visual, auditory, and tactile perceptions. Unique to the model proposed here is the focus on somatic senses.
Discrimination in the tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular systems leads to smooth, graded, coordinated movement. SDD in these three systems results in awkward motor abilities. SDD in the visual and auditory systems can lead to a learning or language disability.
A person with SDD may require extra time to process the salient aspects of sensory stimuli, leading to “slow” performance. Low self-confidence, attention-seeking behavior, and temper tantrums may result.
Pattern 3: Sensory-Based Motor Disorder (SBMD)
People with SBMD have poor postural or volitional movement as a result of sensory problems. There are two subtypes of SBMD.
SBMD Subtype 1: Postural Disorder (PD)
(PD) is difficulty stabilizing the body during movement or at rest to meet the demands of the environment or of a given motor task. PD is characterized by inappropriate muscle tension, hypotonic or hypertonic muscle tone, inadequate control of movement, or inadequate muscle contraction to achieve movement against resistance. Poor balance between flexion and extension of body parts, poor stability, poor righting and equilibrium reactions, poor weight shifting and trunk rotation, and poor ocular–motor control also may be noted.
SBMD Subtype 2: Dyspraxia.
Dyspraxia is an impaired ability to conceive of, plan, sequence, or execute novel actions. People appear awkward and poorly coordinated in gross, fine, or oral–motor areas.
People with dyspraxia seem unsure of where their body is in space and have trouble judging their distance from objects, people, or both. They may seem accident-prone, frequently breaking toys or objects because of difficulty grading force during movement. People with dyspraxia usually have poor skills in ball activities and sports. They display difficulty with projected action sequences that require timing.
People with dyspraxia, like most children, learn by trial and error, but they require significantly more practice than is typical and demonstrate decreased ability to generalize skills to other motor tasks.
Figure 12: Sensory Processing Disorder
Sensory Processing Disorder Patterns:
All these processes have in common to influence our behaviours. But each individual processes sensory input differently. Personality and sensory traits will alter behaviour in different ways. Occupational therapy researcher Winnie Dunn proposed that four sensory processing patterns characterize the perceptual process. These patterns are thought to arise from individual differences in neurological thresholds for stimulation (high-low) and self-regulation strategies (active-passive). Crossing these dimensions gives us four sensory processing styles (Dunn, 2001[lxxvii]; 1997[lxxviii]):
“P – Low Registration (High, Passive)
Low-registering people might be described as insensitive or disconnected. They do not pick up on subtle environmental cues, and require very clear and surgent directives. Most events of daily life are not intense enough to stimulate deep processing for these people, and their passive-reactive self-regulatory stance makes them somewhat oblivious to ongoing activity that is not explicitly engaging them.
A – Sensory Avoiding (Low, Active)
Sensory input bothers avoidant people, so they try to limit the input they must deal with. Unfamiliar input is distressing and difficult to understand or organize, so avoiders regularize their experience through rituals, rules and habits. These provide a high rate of familiar input while limiting exposure to new input. The threatening nature of change can make sensory avoiders rigid, uncooperative and withdrawn.
E – Sensory Seeking (High, Active)
Sensory seekers need and enjoy high levels of sensory stimulation, and they generate extra input for themselves. They are active, engaging and excitable. They place a high premium on novelty, which can be disruptive in cases where they do not persist in beneficial activities, abandoning them for something new once the novelty of the initial activity has worn off.
I – Sensory Sensitivity (Low, Passive)
Sensitive people detect more input and notice more sensory events than others, and comment on them regularly rather than trying to ward them off. They are distractible and can be complainers. They are helped by participating in structured sensory experiences so they are not overwhelmed by unstructured and disruptive input.”[lxxix]
Figure 13: Sensory Processing Model
Given that Dunn’s sensory profiles relate these sensory processes to models of temperament, and suggests that sensory preferences form a basis for the manifestation of temperament and personality, and that being highly sensitive is a recognized trait, it is crucial to understand the temperament of your child. A highly sensitive child will uniquely combine different behavioural responses to their unique response to sensory stimuli. This is crucial to understand, as multiple children will have different behavioural cues to the same sensory experience.
Behavioural Cues: Sensory Defensiveness and Dormancy
Occupational therapy researcher A. Jean Ayres first identified characteristics of “defensiveness” behaviours related to aversive responses to tactile input, describing it as “the tendency to react negatively and emotionally to touch sensations” (Ayres, 1979, p. 107). She noted a connection between hyperactivity and tactile defensiveness (Ayres, 1972, 1979).
A few years later, in her book, A Holistic Approach to Learning Disorders, Barbara Knickerbocker expanded Ayres’ work to a broader category of sensory defensiveness, she placed sensory on a continuum with sensory dormancy. She described sensory dormancy as, “too much…inhibition of incoming sensory stimuli” (p. 32)[lxxx]. In Knickerbocker’s view, too little inhibition resulted in sensory defensiveness and too much inhibition resulted in sensory dormancy.
There can be confusion when reading some of the literature on sensory defensiveness and dormancy as researchers do not agree on how they relate to one another. Ann Fisher and Winnie Dunn (Dunn & Fisher, 1983)[lxxxi] proposed that tactile defensiveness and registration problems were the opposing ends of a single continuum. Fisher, Murray and Bundy found major observable behavioural signs of Sensory Modulation difficulties — avoidance, distractibility and increased activity level— that they suggested as the end products of such disruption (Fisher, Murray and Bundy, 1990)[lxxxii]. While Royeen (1989) elaborated on a continuum model where sensory defensiveness and sensory dormancy are part of one circular continuum with sensory dormancy and defensiveness as potentially adjacent functions[lxxxiii]. Wilbarger & Wilbarger (1991) proposed that sensory defensiveness is on a continuum of approach and avoidance behaviours[lxxxiv].
Important to parents facing a diagnose of autism, Kimball (1993) introduced the concept of shut down which she described as a protective mechanism against severe overload. She illustrated the notion of a non-linear continuum by describing individuals at the extremes of behaviour, i.e.: “some children even react in a dangerous way and go from overarousal to physiological shut down.”[lxxxv]
As neuroscience advances, it is becoming clear that the brain is a complex heterarchy, therefore, sensory modulation probably includes complex models of stimuli comprised of dynamic, interactive systems. This explains some of the confusion around these issues. This does reinforce what Dunn (1997) suggested: that there are probably multiple, interacting continua[lxxxvi].
It is surprising that this knowledge is not more disseminated within broader contexts such as with doctors and teachers. Living professionals and parents alike struggling to understand what is happening to their children could develop essential insights by understanding sensory processing related issues. Particularly given that occupational therapists understand SMD as a disruption in processing rather than a disorder (Wilbarger and Merman Stackhouse, 1998)[lxxxvii].
Given that the medical culture tends to disregard sensory processing outside of a medical diagnostic, this foundational step of their development is often left to deteriorate or is suppressed via medication. The more we drug children or penalize them for out of sync behaviours, the less likely they will learn to regulate these processes in a positive way. Considering that highly sensitive children are sensory gifted, they could easily display sensory overexitabilities, these reactions are not pathologies but normal reactions given their heightened receptivity to sensory inputs. Whereas our culture accepts intellectual gifteness, if it continues to ignore the other dimensions of giftedness in diagnoses, we will continue to distress these children.
The repression of the senses via medication is particularly problematic for a highly sensitive child, as it is clear that identity formation depends on a positive relationship to their heightened sensory processes. Their access to well being depends on learning to become aware of their heightened senses, to process their sensory inputs and develop sensory and mind sights allowing them to understand how they affect their responsiveness and of course, how they participate in regulating sensory experiences within their multiple dimensions.
When we suspend our cultural/social suppressing mechanism, which makes us react to the situation as something to immediately stop and reprimand, and instead become a sensory detective that try to understand why the child’s behaviour has changed by tuning into the child’s experience, we can begin to put together the puzzles of heightened sensory responsiveness.
Key to sensory well-being is finding the right arousal level. Dr Sutton explains that sensory modulation can lead to feel alert or drowsy and tense or calm and that the optimal arousal state is a “calm and alert” state as can be seen in Dr Sutton’s figure below.
Figure 14: Arousal Levels
When optimal arousal levels are maintained, a child is in a calm and alert state, which will allow for the rest of his being to function properly. But when arousal is too intense or too little, the rest of the being will suffer.
Understanding the sensory profile of a child makes it possible to analyze the nature of his or her sensory experience and to adjust the environment based on the child’s sensory needs. Similarly to what Dunn understood in sensory processing styles, if we can begin to understand whether there is a sensitivity, or a processing, integration or modulation issue, we can work towards appropriate sensory experiences. The complex landscape of stimuli is coupled to a sensory processing and modulation system calibrated to the uniqueness of each individual. Thus the need to be a “sensory detective’ and to analyze a child’s behaviours and reaction to various sensory inputs from the perspective of his or her unique sensory system.
What I have found with one of my children, is that his sensory sensitivities are not just at the processing stage, they are also embedded within the sensory modulation aspect of sensing. His sensory processes and modulation become irritated by stress and trauma. He then enters a “funnel vision” cognitive state and he can no longer pay attention. As the trauma and stress are reduced, his modulation issues decrease dramatically and his senses go back to a “highly sensitive” range where his holistic nature can flourish. It is a subtle process and I have found that diagnosis are not accurate with him as the stress they create changes his ability to think, move and be in the world.
Two questions parents should ask themselves. First, Is it a sensory sensitivity or is something else going on?
Leading specialists in the field of highly sensitive health Elaine Aron, Ph.D., Barbara Allen-Williams, and Jacquelyn Strickland, LPC, provide a questionnaire that can help clarify the sensory issue:
“Regardless of the profound differences in these traits, there are ways to minimize overstimulation. Many with Sensory Processing Disorder have found success with occupational therapists who help them better integrate stimuli into their experience. Indeed, many people without the full-blown disorder benefit from these methods, and some parents of highly sensitive children, children without the disorder, say it has helped them.
In contrast, many with Sensory Processing Sensitivity have found success by simply becoming educated about their genetic trait (or their child’s). They learn to create a proper balance in their day which may include meditation, creative arts, walks in nature, yoga, and learning which environments serve them best. Many have found seeking outside professional help from those who are educated about SPS to be helpful — mainly to help them reframe and understand their experiences as being normal.
Perhaps the truest test of what differentiates SPS from not only SPD, but also other diagnoses such as Autism and Aspergers Syndrome, are the four things all HSPs have in common ~ the D.O.E.S. as defined and eloquently explained in Elaine Aron’s book, Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person.
D.O.E.S. refers to: Depth of Processing; Overstimulation; Emotional Intensity; and Sensory Sensitivity. For example here are some questions to ask in each category which help identify and differentiate Sensory Processing Sensitivity:
Depth of Processing
- Does this person reflect more than others about the “way the world is going;” the meaning of life or their line of work?
- Is this person slow at making decisions, preferring to have “a little more time,” but often makes very good decisions?
- Is this person known for their good ideas?
- Does this person exhibit personal insight and have a sense of long-term consequences, perhaps leading to unusual conscientiousness?
- Does this person experience overstimulation and burn out due to the sheer amount of incoming information, experiencing a sense of not being able to handle any more? And when in a gentle environment, do they effectively process and integrate stimuli?
- Do others sometimes think something is wrong with them because they cannot handle as much as others seem to? This may be because HSPs often decline activities, even if enjoyable, in order to take care of themselves.
- Does this person need more sleep and downtime than their family and friends?
Emotional Responsiveness and Empathy
- Is this person more easily and appropriately moved to tears of joy, gratitude or relief, and equally moved to laughter whether by sheer silliness or subtle irony?
- Does this person react more to the emotions of others and often know what you are feeling far more than others do?
- Does this person become more distressed by violent TV shows or movies; unfairness, bullying, social injustice, or other disturbing events?
Sensitive to Subtleties
- Does this person notice small changes others miss, such as someone looking tired, the décor of a room they have only been in briefly, or small flowers or animals or even animal tracks?
- Is this person more aware than others of the sound of a ticking clock or dripping water, or subtle tastes and smells?
- Does this person notice what needs to be changed in an environment to make others more comfortable?’ [lxxxviii]
The second question for a parent becomes, what causes my child’s sensory imbalances? Sensory difficulties can come from many sources. Some may be sensorial but other elements can come into play that will heighten reactions. Emotional or physiological difficulties can trigger a heightened sensory experience and visa versa.
To understand this part of the issue, we must look deeper into what alters a child’s behaviour. The body reacts to anything we sense via changes in behaviours. Thus, we need to understand how the body is connected to sensory experiences since behaviours can be responses to a chemical, emotional, cognitive, physiological, and/or genetic stimuli. As we will explore next.
Layer 3: The Body – A Behavioural Medium of Responses to Sensory Experiences
The body has an internal and external plane. The internal plane regulates what is going on inside of us. The external plane relates to elements from the outside world that influence the body and visa versa that the body influences.
On the internal plane, we can observe highly sensitive child behaviours using the traditional holistic health determinants: genetic, physical, biological (nutritional, chemical, genetic), emotional, cognitive and spiritual (and/or psychological depending on beliefs).
On the external plane of being, a subtler dimension is the inter-connection of the senses to the environment as we saw previously. It may seem redundant to include to spatial aspects in this section but it is important to acknowledge the feedback loop that exist between different dimensions of being. We must distinguish between spatial communication inputs, how space influences our sense and spatial communication feedback: the signals the body puts back into space. Thus a second layer of space exists in this model. At this level, we are concerned with what we are introducing into the environment. We can be in-tune with the environment when in a positive state or we can be in complete discordance and affect the environment negatively.
Figure 15: Body Dimension of Health
All these aspects influence each other and changes in perception of one, will alter the others, as illustrated by the spiral in the figure below. As such, many of the health elements belong to multiple dimensions at the same time, they move through the various dimensions, and one change in perception in one quadrant will transform what is in the others and influence the outer layer of the person, via behavioural changes.
Genealogy: Ethnicity/ Genetics Health Quadrant
The highly sensitive trait is becoming increasingly associated with identifiable behaviours, genes, physiological reactions, and patterns of brain activation (Stony Brook 2014)[lxxxix].
Understanding the impact of our genealogy on our children is an important step in the process of well-being. As we saw in chapter 4, our ancestors shaped who we are today culturally, genetically and chemically. Our reactions to food and the environments depend in large on our genealogy. Furthermore, psychologists recognize that there is a “genetic memory”: “ a memory present at birth that exists in the absence of sensory experience, and is incorporated into the genome over long spans of time (Rodolfo , 2001, p. 190-191).[xc] It is based on the idea that common experiences of a species become incorporated into its genetic code, by a tendency to encode a readiness to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli. There is also a “blood memory”, a chemical trail that is past amongst generations as well as a cultural memory that shapes our values and ways of being in the world. As Gabor Maté explains:
“Parenting, in short, is a dance of the generations. Whatever affected one generation but has not been fully resolved will be passed on to the next. Lance Morrow, a journalist and writer, succinctly expressed the multigenerational nature of stress in his book heart (…): “The generations are boxes within boxes: Inside my mother’s violence you find another box, which contains my grand-father’s violence, and inside that box (I suspect but do not know), you would find another box with some black, secret energy – stories within stories, receding in time.”[xci]
In other word, some traits are transmitted transgenerationally. This has tremendous consequences in our sensory abilities, chemical and spiritual life as well as emotional. Generational pain and fears or well being are not only a family issue, they also exist in our various forms of spirituality, culture and tradition and are highly personal components that affect our health. These ancestral influences have a direct impact on our body, mind and spirit and tacitly affect all quadrants of our health.
While we inherit traits from our family, our genes adapt to our environmental contexts. According to Scott Barry Kaufman Ph.D” “in recent years, studies have shown the importance of gene by environment interactions. But here’s the thing: we’re not just finding that the environment matters in determining whether mental illness exists. What we’re discovering is far more interesting and nuanced: some of the very same genes that under certain environmental conditions are associated with some of the lowest lows of humanity, under supportive conditions are associated with the highest highs of human flourishing.
These findings shouldn’t be understated. They are revolutionary, and suggest a serious rethinking of the role of genes in the manifestation of our psychological traits and mental “illness”. Instead of all of our genes coding for particular psychological traits, it appears we have a variety of genetic mutations that are associated with sensitivity to the environment– for better and worse”[xcii].
This is a clue as to why medicating children with “out of sync” behaviours can be very detrimental. Our genes can adapt to the environment and when we chemically alter the brain, we interrupt the natural adaptation process we possess. Could autism be an extreme reaction to environment stress that eventually lead to genetic mutations that protect the individual? Could sensitivity affected by trauma (chemical, emotional, etc) alter our genes and affect our children? Slowly, the answer is moving towards a definite yes. While the past influence what we are at birth, what we become can change if our environment changes.
In the presentation “Differential Susceptibility to Environmental Influences”, Dr. Jay Belsky explains that genes are moderators of environmental effects and that we are armed with a cumulative genetic plasticity[xciii]. Other researchers have pinned point a specific gene for this plasticity. Variation in the gene CHRNA4 appears to contribute to personality by affecting degree of developmental sensitivity to both normal and adverse environments[xciv].
This is another reason learning self-regulation skills is essential, it can positively affect our genes. According to Belsky and his team: ”the capacity to control or regulate one’s emotions, cognitions and behavior is central to competent functioning, with limitations in these abilities associated with developmental problems. Parenting appears to influence such self-regulation. Here the differential-susceptibility hypothesis is tested that the more putative ‘plasticity alleles’ adolescents carry, the more positively and negatively influenced they will be by, respectively, supportive and unsupportive parenting.”[xcv]
These findings suggest that if we eliminate toxicity from highly sensitive children’s lives, and as a consequence reduce life stressors, and focus instead on creating sensory nourishing environments, we can alter their genetic make up. This could help them thrive as adults not only genetically but also in all other aspects of health and in the process drastically reduce mental health problems and significantly decrease any symptoms currently associated with an illness or learning disability.
Emotional/cognitive Health Quadrant
Given that highly sensitive children feel their emotions in a much deeper way than others, their emotional health is crucial to being in sync with the world. When their world is toxic, children will most likely experience sensory disruption, not being in a calm and alert state means that stress and anxieties becomes a daily underlying struggle that will negatively impact their nervous central system. Indeed, research shows that children with sensory processing disorder and sensory processing differences have a greater tendency to switch from the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) to the SNS (sympathetic nervous system) based on an adverse stimuli or an environment with new or a great amount of sensory stimuli. One study in particular found that children with sensory modulation issues had less effective parasympathetic functions than typically developing children[xcvi].
Angie Voss, an occupational therapist specialized in sensory processing differences explains that when we are in a calm alert state, we are using our parasympathetic nervous system: This is where our nervous remains most of the time and when we are at “ready state” for learning, and social interaction. But when sensory disruption happens, the sympathetic nervous system comes into play and we enter a state of “fight or flight”. This part of our nervous system is intended for safety and the ability to react to a perceived dangerous situation, it governs the ‘involuntary’ visceral processes. According to Angie Voss:
“children with sensory defensiveness or who over-register sensory input perceive their environment as dangerous and painful based on how they process sensory information. Therefore their nervous system switches to the SNS and displays a “fight or flight” response. A child who has a difficult time processing and modulating sensory input can also have the tendency to switch to “fight or flight”. And almost all children with sensory differences have a difficult time with self-regulation, in turn, a greater risk for “fight or flight” episodes”[xcvii].
According to Roz Carroll, this “fight or flight” process is the body’s natural response to perceived threat or danger. It is important to note that the response can be due to both real and imaginary threats. During this reaction, certain hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are released, speeding the heart rate, slowing digestion, shunting blood flow to major muscle groups, and changing various other autonomic nervous functions, giving the body a burst of energy and strength. Originally named for its ability to enable us to physically fight or run away when faced with danger, it’s now activated in situations where neither response is appropriate, like in traffic or during a stressful day at work. When the perceived threat is gone, systems are designed to return to normal function via the relaxation response, but in our times of chronic stress, this often doesn’t happen enough, causing damage to the body[xcviii].
This reaction is an acute hormonal reaction meant to be a response to temporary acute stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the sudden release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous systems stimulates the adrenal glands triggering the release of catecholamines, which include adrenaline and noradrenaline. This results in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. After the threat is gone, it takes between 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to its pre-arousal levels.
When this stress goes unnoticed, this hormonal reaction becomes continuous and can begin to create long-term damage to the body and mind.
HSP Health discusses a type of accumulated stress that can be thought of as another type of stress. When stress is unrelenting it will accumulate if we are not able to take the time, for whatever reason, to restore our bodies and psyches. If the stresses come from many directions, work, home etc., then we may not notice the stress accumulation taking place.[xcix]
The body however will pay the consequence. The brain begins to always feel “anxious” when it switches to fight or flight all of the time. And the cumulative result of this releases more and more of the stress hormones throughout the body.
Angie Voss, after years of experience with sensory disruption, started to see a pattern. Many or most of these children also had a diagnosis of ADD/ADHD, OCD, and/or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). She considers that these other diagnoses are often just the symptoms, and “side effects” of sensory processing difficulties. Her professional opinion, formed from years of experience, is that almost all children with sensory differences have difficulty with self-regulation and modulating (processing) the ever changing sensory input coming into the brain on a constant basis:
“This can be very unpredictable, scary, painful, and uncomfortable for the child. As a result, anxiety is almost always going to be a factor. It is a very reasonable symptom and a result of the difficulty in processing sensory information…wouldn’t you be anxious if being touched or a loud unexpected sound or loud voice/laugh was painful and caused a fight or flight reaction? I sure would be!!! This is what is happening for our children…and it creates a generalized anxiety response to their little world.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) symptoms are also quite common. The way I see this and correlate this to sensory challenges is via “sensory anchors”. When a child is dysregulated and feeling disorganized, sensory anchors are used to help the brain feel good and feel a sense of control. This is when you will typically see OCD symptoms at their finest. So a child will do something that feels good to the nervous system such as lining up toys or counting things out in repetition because their little world is so unpredictable and they do not feel in control of their body or brain, and especially the environment…so they do something they CAN control.
And ADD/ADHD is probably the most misdiagnosed, over diagnosed, and medicated diagnosis out there. The components of ADD/ADHD go hand in hand with sensory processing disorder. If a child’s brain is unable to sort out irrelevant sensory stimuli then OF COURSE they will be easily distracted and have trouble attending! And…if the child’s brain is under registering sensory input and not getting the necessary and proper sensory nutrition in which the brain needs to attend and maintain a ready state for learning, behavior, and social skills…OF COURSE they will also be so called “hyperactive”! They are trying to get sensory input on a constant basis!
Please respect these side effects/symptoms and address them via sensory integration. Find sensory tools and strategies that work for your child. It may be tools for defensiveness or a sensory retreat to help self-regulate. Living a sensory life and applying sensory strategies in the home is critical for success.” [c]
Voss stresses the importance of addressing the root of the problem, which is most likely an over or under registration of sensory input. When you get to the root of the problem and address the foundation of sensory development, the rest begins to fall into place.
But when sensory processing difficulties remain unresolved, a child is left to be in a constant state of anxieties, which will lead to physiological, social, behavioural and emotional instabilities.
Dr. Stephen Porges, Director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, developed the Polyvagal Theory that establishes how trauma creates physiological responses. According to occupational therapist blogger Teresa Garland:
“Polyvagal Theory claims that the nervous system employs a hierarchy of strategies to both regulate itself and to keep us safe in the face of danger. In fact, it’s all about staying safe.
Our “highest” level strategy is a mechanism Porges calls social engagement. It is a phenomenal system – connecting the social muscles of the face (eyes, mouth and middle ear) with the heart. You knew that your heart came alive with social interaction, and it’s true! This system is regulated through a myelinated branch of the vagus nerve. In evolutionary terms, this is our most evolved strategy (mammals only) for keeping ourselves safe. We use this all the time to clear up misunderstandings, get help, plead for forgiveness, and so on.
The next mechanism, or strategy, is fight or flight. It’s regulated by the sympathetic nervous system. This system is our fall-back strategy when social engagement isn’t a good fit. (Think of seeing someone sneaking up on you!) Note that freeze is not a part of fight or flight.
Our freeze option is primal and is a remnant of our reptilian past. Freeze is a great strategy for turtles and lizards, but it’s usually a bad idea for humans – think of fainting. Therefore, we typically use it last, when social engagement and fight/flight aren’t going to work for us. But there are good uses for freeze. During severe injury, it shuts us down and turns off our registration of pain. We also make use of it during sex, and it helps women regulate pain and response to pain during labor.
Now these systems appear to work in tandem. The social engagement system puts the brakes on the other (fight, flight, freeze) strategies, thus keeping our heart and body active while we work through a situation. The social engagement system will release the brakes to engage a different response to the environment (i.e. running) if engagement doesn’t help to get us into a safe situation.”
Garland links these findings to sensory experiences. When we are operating using the social exchange, our gut and other organs do their job uninterrupted. But sensory sensitive children, who can recoil from sound, touch, smell or taste, are not able to work from our social engagement strategy, they revert to a modified fight/flight strategy, which puts them in high alert. If they use too much of the fight/flight or freeze strategies, they may end up with gut issues because the gut comes to a halt and we stop digesting food during fight/flight activation.
As she explains, researchers are beginning to understand how sensory difference also implies a difference in physiological response to stress:
“Two researchers looked at a biological marker of the social exchange system, RSA, in typical children and in children with sensory modulation issues. RSA is the measure of high-frequency fluctuation in the heart between heartbeats. It is a window into the social exchange system. The researchers found that children with sensory modulation issues have a lower level of RSA than their peers, meaning that these children are better prepared to put the breaks on social strategies and instead use fight-or-flight strategies.
As part of the study, the children were (each in turn) given a sensory challenge. The chairs they were seated on tilted backwards unexpectedly. The level of RSA was monitored in each child throughout the incident. The RSA of typical children dropped quickly and then stayed low for a short time. The children with poor sensory modulation skills had a very brief drop of RSA and a quick rebound to their RSA baseline.
This implies that children with sensory modulation symptoms use different strategies to handle safety-related situations than their peers. At this time, it is harder to draw greater conclusions since we do not have an easy-access window into the fight/flight system or the freeze system. With time, we’ll get a better understanding of this. The article can be found here.[ci]
Perhaps the most interesting new work making use of the Polyvagal Theory is the work of A. D. (Bud) Craig. Mapping our emotions, this is what he found. (Read about it here.)[cii]
Emotions arise from feelings in our organs and gut. The feelings are sent via the vagus nerve to the Anterior Insular Cortex (AIC) in the brain. (There’s a lot going on in the vagus nerve – think of it as a cable with lots of separate wires.) The AIC captures feelings over time and stores them as snapshots of feelings. This is our working emotional memory. These feelings are massaged and integrated with the social exchange to give us both an emotional response to the world around us as well as a safety-driven strategy.
Think of this: I am relaxing in a lounge chair on the beach. I feel safe. Suddenly, a beach ball hits me. My fight or flight instinct kicks in and the sympathetic nervous system stops everything that’s happening (i.e. digestion) in my organs and gut. The gut passes the feeling of stoppage as “alarm” to the brain. This translates in the brain to fear and my body is set in motion. I quickly turn and see it’s a ball and that a child is nearby and smiling at me. My social engagement strategy puts the breaks on my fight/flight response and also calms my heart. I smile at the child. This sends a sense of relief to my gut and it in turn sends a “warm” feeling to the AIC. My heart is still pounding from the surprise, but my response is guided by compassion.
In the above scenario, we specifically looked at a situation with a challenge to safety. But in fact, we spend much of our time worrying about safety. Unless I am completely safe, listening to quiet music in a locked room, I will most likely have safety challenges to respond to. The challenge may be from the scary book I am reading, or from the sense of anxiety I feel when I drop a spoon on the floor. Almost any activity will involve the combined interaction of the various strategies. The bottom line: we are constantly adjusting ourselves to meet the world. Polyvagal Theory gives us a look at how this works.” [ciii]
Highly sensitive children’s limbic system is very intense and reactive (self-regulation and emotions) therefore the child may feel and process emotions much stronger than the average person. This phenomenon has been studies and one scientific study[civ] showed that people with social phobias and anxieties are hypersensitive to other people’s states of mind. People who are more socially anxious are able to discern the mental states of people much more accurately. Results from the study support the hypothesis that high socially anxious individuals may demonstrate a unique social-cognitive abilities profile with elevated cognitive empathy tendencies and high accuracy in affective mental state attributions. The researchers used specific testing to measure levels of empathy within specific individuals, and found that those same individuals demonstrated high levels of social anxiety-like behaviour. This suggests that there is a connection between social anxiety and high empathy.
Highly sensitive children often have a very strong need to succeed, and a fear of failing or making mistakes. They tend to fear change and need predictability in their lives. This can lead to mental stress. Mental stress factors include worry, anxiety, fear, impossible expectations or demands, unreasonable expectations or demands, inappropriate expectations or demands, inflexible thinking, resistance to necessary change, powerlessness.
Worrying in itself is not a negative trait. According to researchers at SUNY Downstate medical center, Worrying may have evolved along with intelligence as a beneficial trait. According to the J. Coplan and his team[cv], it may well be that intelligence may have co-evolved with worry in humans. As Coplan explains:
“While excessive worry is generally seen as a negative trait and high intelligence as a positive one, worry may cause our species to avoid dangerous situations, regardless of how remote a possibility they may be,” (…) “In essence, worry may make people ‘take no chances,’ and such people may have higher survival rates. Thus, like intelligence, worry may confer a benefit upon the species.”[cvi]
Highly sensitive children possess a heightened awareness of sensory input, some sensory systems being more heightened than others; they have an acute awareness of “the big picture” understanding very complex concepts of life at a much younger age. When they do not know how to self-regulate, emotional upset and quick mood changes are sure to follow and go hand in hand. Depending on their temperament, some children with anxiety as a result of a nervous system that over-registers sensory input will also have very quick shifts in emotions, while those who under-registers sensory input or presents with other sensory processing challenges may lack emotions and have more of a “flat affect” (lack of emotion) and also demonstrate difficulty in reading emotional cues from others[cvii]. But this lack of reading is most likely due to a process of shut down when the stimuli is too painful.
Emotional health for a highly sensitive child must address. Helping them how to approach over-excitabilities, intensity and positive disintegration processes as being normal to their lives and learn how to regulate these uniqueness instead of suppressing them. As in their case, suppression can only lead to further emotional stress as adults. Emotional stress factors can be feelings of fear and dread, rejection, abandonment, anger as well as guilt, shame, embarrassment and humiliation.[cviii]
Stressful emotional states change the balance of hormones, which in turn modifies how skin reacts to stimuli and increases sensory and/or emotional irritability. This can affect our immune system and increase food and sensorial sensitivities, amongst others. And visa versa, food affects our emotional energy making it more or less positive or negative and, in turn, influences our ability to have healthy or toxic social relationships by affecting our moods and sensory capacities.
Emotions work in tandem with our thoughts, the cognitive level of our being, which is important to consider, as certain thought patterns are more or less helpful to our health. Researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas are the first to substantiate memory deficits in individuals with depressed mood. Such findings indicate that emotions, in this case negative, will affect cognitive capacities (Center for BrainHealth. (2015)[cix]. In the case of children, this memory loss can be misdiagnosed as a learning disability. Without addressing the underlying emotional issues, such as depression or anxieties, a child can be stigmatized for cognitive conditions he/she does not have.
Not surprisingly, highly sensitive children can easily develop very low esteem, especially when their identities, experiences and behaviours are not validated by cultural and social expectations.
Thus the importance to help them develop positive though patterns and reduces negative self-talk. Barbara Fredrickson developed the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. The theory asserts that people’s daily experiences of positive emotions compound over time to build a variety of consequential personal resources. Using field experiments, she examined the impact of meditation on positive thinking, her research results:
“showed that this meditation practice produced increases over time in daily experiences of positive emotions, which, in turn, produced increases in a wide range of personal resources (e.g., increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, decreased illness symptoms). In turn, these increments in personal resources predicted increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms. “(Fredrickson, 2008)[cx]
These findings were among the first to suggest positive emotions broaden your sense of possibility and open your mind up to more options. The biggest benefit of positive emotions is an enhanced ability to build skills and develop resources for use later in life.
For Fredrickson, positive emotions broaden our sense of possibilities and open our mind, which in turn allows us to build new skills and resources that can provide value in other areas of our life. While negative emotions do the opposite, since building skills for future use is irrelevant when there is immediate threat or danger and the flight or fight hormones take hold.
Healthy emotions will help them handle life’s challenges, build strong relationships, and lead productive, fulfilling lives. It will allow them to bounce back when bad things happen and to manage stress without falling apart.
Fredrickson’s research revealed that people who meditate daily display more positive emotions that those who do not and also built valuable long-term skills. For example, three months after the experiment was over, the people who meditated daily continued to display increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms.
Although yoga and meditation have been used for stress reduction with reported improvement in inflammation, other researchers are exploring the biological mechanisms mediating such effects. David Black and his team have found that meditation reduces cortisol and increases melatonin, and this changes the pattern of gene expression (Black et al, 2012)[cxi]
Positive emotions also affect our heart’s electromagnetic field, which contains certain information, or coding that is transmitted throughout and outside of the body. Some researchers posit that intentionally generated positive emotions can change this information/coding:
“ That discovery raises the question whether the cardioelectromagnetic field information transmitted from an individual who is angry, fearful, depressed or experiencing some other negative emotion, takes on beneficial properties when it is influenced by positive emotions. Also, is the care, compassion, love or other positive emotion not only transmitted throughout an individual’s body as the cardioelectromagnetic field radiates through it, but transferred externally as well to people in close proximity or even, perhaps, over long distances?“[cxii]
As we explored earlier, sensory difficulties can lead to emotional problems and visa versa, emotional difficulties can aggravate sensory difficulties. Both can result in physiological difficulties and negatively influence a child’s behaviours but other elements also affect our physiology.
Physical/Biological Health Quadrants
Highly sensitive children can also suffer from physical stress. Physical stress factors are poor food, unsuitable diet, too little sleep, excessive noise, bright lights, strong scents, all kinds of chemicals in household products, paints, and clothes, too strenuous physical labour, heavy lifting inappropriate for one’s age, multitasking, too many hours of work, too much sun, extreme and sudden changes in weather, excessive speed or changes in speed, all forms of environmental pollution. Keeping track of such stress is essential to a highly sensitive child as constant stress can lead to chronic disease. While modern science and medicine is beginning to acknowledge this connection between stress and disease, ancient Ayreveda health tradition understood a long time ago how toxins affect the body. As explained by HSP Health:
“According to the ancient medical system of Ayurveda, disease develops in a six stage process:
- the body accumulates toxins. For the HSP, stresses to the nervous system are toxic and so great that an HSP has no choice but to intervene at the source of the problem to have any chance at health.
- the body starts to become aggravated by the spread of the imbalancing toxic factor in the body
- the aggravating imbalances spread into the body
- the beginning of structural damage
- the manifestation of illness
- the development of a chronic disease due to unattended imbalances over a long period of time, a situation that an HSP can minimize by learning to eliminate imbalances.”[cxiii]
It is clear that diet and exercise are important to health, as we will explore in the next chapter. Without exercise toxins are not eliminated quickly from the body and can lead to depression and/or anxiety. A Sensory diet is also crucial to a highly sensitive child, as the body needs a constant balancing of sensory inputs. Issues we will also explore in the next chapter. But sometimes, it is not possible to address this aspect of health when emotional health is very damaged.
Another particularity of highly sensitive children is that they can be extra sensitive to pain and to internal bodily processes. They tend to recover more slowly from illness, trauma and medical procedures. They also can be extra sensitive to medications and can experience different therapeutic effects and side effects from them; this sometimes makes it more difficult to treat their medical conditions. And in some cases, medication will increase the toxicity of the body.
As a naturopath explained to me, highly sensitive children who have heightened chemical reactions, actually have a very healthy immune system, which is partly why they easily show signs of distress/stress. We are chemical beings and part of the sensory system functions is to detect chemical signatures from space and from what we ingest.
It must be understood that our chemical body influences our ability to feel lethargic or able to move and chemical imbalances can also alter our moods and our ability to be social.
Such imbalance can come from food. We tend to forget that food is chemistry. Yet, it is our original form of medicinal remedies. The nature of the foods we eat changes our chemical body, and as a result our energy and emotional levels.
Spiritual/psychological Health Quadrant
Spirituality/psychology are another important quadrant to incorporate, as having a purpose beyond ourselves is important in situating ourselves in the world but also directs our understanding of spatial knowledge. These two levels are combined as they echo each other in their relation to our inner desires which, depending on the belief system we abide by, are the manifestations of our soul or unconscious mind.
Helping a highly sensitive child connect to spirituality can help alleviate potential mental health difficulties. Researcher M. king has found that people who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder[cxiv]. In a spiritual sense, some illnesses result from not fulfilling the inner desires of the soul, and in a psychological sense, illness, depression, anxiety can appear when an individual is not true to his/her inner soul/psyche needs. In both cases, dreams are central to finding solutions, by communicating with spirits or with the unconscious. Could the empathic sense be a key to this communication? Could suppression of the empathic sense results in depriving the inner soul of needed nourishment?
Given the culture we live in, with so many problems and inequalities, a highly sensitive child can easily feel disconnected and powerless. As we saw, these children who can accurately feel, interpret, and sense the thoughts and emotions of others and feel interconnected to their environment and detect threats before other people. These qualities can make them feel powerless in front of a world that is in need of repair. Spirituality can become a way to channel some of their qualities and help them develop a belief system to survive the sense of powerlessness they feel during childhood.
All of these quadrants are in constant fluid interactions and an imbalance in one can affect the others. While we cannot address this complexity of issues all at once, we can use this matrix of influences to begin the process of de-cluttering the senses of our children. This will help detoxify the space within which they live, as we will see next.
Space As a Feedback System
As we saw, space includes many dimensions that affect the senses. When trying to understand unbalanced spatial sensorial input, we can break it down into more distinct components. Space is composed of Nature, artificial places (rooms, buildings, etc), culture which dictates how we interact with space, beings (animals, plants and people) which affect us and chemistry that can emanate from any of these components or objects or substance, and social life.
But highly sensitive children are not just influenced by space, they also contribute to its make up. Their energy, positive or negative, is distributed within space and influences all of its elements. I have watched someone in a very repressed, toxic, emotional state make my herb garden wilt. The energy from this person was so intense, that over a short period of time he passed on this energy to what surround him, plants but also people and animals. Cats ran away from him and children began highly anxious in his presence.
If it is clear that we behave in space differently based on the positive or negative nature of our body and identity, it is not yet understood that we also affect our environment. Part of a feedback loop, all the elements that can affect a child, as seen earlier in this chapter, can in turn be affected by the child. This is crucial to understand as it can have serious consequences for a child.
Let say for instance that you are visiting friends with a very friendly dog, but for some reason your child gets bitten, what could be the reason? Or is your child getting bullied? In both cases, how the child feels may be influencing the dog or people. If the child is highly anxious and sends out very negative signals, the dog could simply sense danger and react. Or a child’s very low self-esteem can be sensed by others whom, when themselves not well, use it against that child.
Technology: An Outer Skin Layer
We can also explore the role of technology in helping our children simplify spatially embodied social experiences to practice these situations without the physical discomforts of sensory over loads. And of course, our understanding of the relationship of space to social life must be revisited to take into account technologies as potential communication and learning tools. Technology can be helpful for retraining of the brain, an area we will explore in chapter 8. While technology can be toxic in many ways, it can also play a role in fostering positive emotional, sensorial and physiological self-regulation via simulation and other types of gaming strategies. Over time, these can help a highly sensitive child learn to regulate various aspects of his or her sensory life.
Layer 4: Time: Values, Behaviours, People, History
Time is another important yet often invisible dimension of health that is key to understand.
First, a highly sensitive child’s harmony depends on a fluid experience of time. When time is fluid, 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, each is separated and compartmentalized, every activity requires a lot more energy and focus and the overworking of the senses can become a sort of trauma. According to HSP Health, time stress is so much a part of our daily lives in the form of aggressive deadlines, too much work in a short period of time, too many claims on one’s attention.[cxv]
Second, we can consider ancestral time. This time is composed of the ancestral knowledge and history that influence what we are today. It also incorporate how what we do today, influence who are children will be. For instance, Asian cultures have known for a long time that every aspect of diet and behaviours a mother is exposed to during her lifetime, determine the supply of elements to the foetus. Given the levels of stress in our culture, many pregnant women unintentionally are affecting the health of their children. All the emotional and environmental toxins women are exposed to end up in their children. Unfortunately, many women are unaware of this and have little knowledge of the chemicals they are putting in their bodies.
Further more, becoming aware of family traumas can help us become conscious of these hidden dynamics that play a central role in how we interact with others. Only by conscious aware of them, we can begin the process of healing them through a process of examination and retraining of our ways.
Indeed, an invisible influence of time is generational transmission of trauma. Scientists have been studying what is referred to as ACEs. ACEs denotes adverse childhood experiences, a term coined in the CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study, first published in 1998[cxvi]. The study revealed that childhood trauma is very common — two-thirds of adults have experienced at least one type of trauma. According to Donna Jackson Nakazawa, journalist and author of the book “Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal”, the consequences of the toxic stress caused by that trauma damages kids’ developing brains (and damaged our developing brains when we were children), as well as our bodies and genes. The ACE Pyramid, illustrated in the figure below, represents the conceptual framework for the ACE Study. It shows the progression of damage ACEs can create within a person.
Figure 16: ACE Pyramid
If two third of adults have experiences ACE, it has often gone untreated. And what has gone untreated is transmitted to the next generation. The book “Lost in transmission: studies of trauma across generations”[cxvii] builds on the idea that “what human beings cannot contain of their experience—what has been traumatically overwhelming, unbearable, unthinkable—falls out of social discourse, but very often on to and into the next generation as an affective sensitivity or a chaotic urgency.” According to researcher Molly S. Castelloe[cxviii], these legacies are often passed on through unconscious cues or affective messages that flow between child and adult. Sometimes anxiety falls from one generation to the next through stories told (Fromm, xxi). A highly sensitive child who has been transmitted a previous generation’s trauma can be deeply affected by this process. This means that we must take an honest look at our own traumas, analyses what we are transmitting to our children and learn to communicate these issues instead of letting them operate at an unconscious level. This is hard work.
The alternative, a quick medical intervention or suppression of the issues will allow to learn to listen to our senses and empathic responses.
Third, on more positive note, time has other aspects that are particularly important to highly sensitive children and other gifted children. It can help us reveal the levels of depth and complexity of development that we move in and out of. Highly sensitive children’s development timeframes do not follow a linear time frame. Not only does it take time and slow changes to ease their distress, it is also takes time to understand the layered sensory uniqueness of their situation, which will also change over time.
Central to this model is the idea that we change over time and continuously and that for highly sensitive children, a very slow process, that incorporates small incremental changes is very important to avoid creating more strain through too much simultaneous change. Any new trauma can bring on a regression in development that will also take time to solve.
Slow change allows for deep listening to the senses and empathic awareness to flourish instead of being suppressed.
With so many variables involved, a slow process of change allows examining one element at a time. Also, slow incremental changes tend to be more sustainable in the long term than drastic quick fixes.
Our behaviours are also altered by time. Our behaviours transform over time depending on how our body exists in space. As our senses uses our awareness to decode sensory input, the way we interact with the world, our thoughts and behaviours adjust to mirror our new insights. When irritable responsiveness is reduced, and the senses rebalanced towards a more harmonious relationship with the world, in time, the ability for empathy should increase. Visa versa, when we move forward a more balanced sensory life, we become calmer. As our behaviours transform, so will the quality of our relationship to people.
Over time, the awareness of a person changes as their understanding of themselves, the senses, the environment, space, the body, perceptions of the world also change. In this process, as deep empathy begins to resurface, deep listening can begin to take place and alter our understanding of how to live with others. This can drastically reduce stress and anxieties.
Once anxieties and stressors are reduced, a person or child can start focusing on the rest of the world. As the senses are balanced, instead of constantly struggling with sensory regulation, it becomes possible to distinguish between the self and other and in the process be able to be with others without being overwhelmed. Our understanding and compassion will vary depending on the values we hold and develop and the modalities of engagement we choose will trigger new responses to others. As the empathy sense becomes better understood, we can develop behaviours that incorporate deep listening and other empathy driven modalities.
As these changes in behaviours and social relationships take place, we can begin to analyze our ways of being by reflecting on past experiences and cultures to understand the present and how we behave. As our values change, history and myths can help us frame our new insights with existing stories of how our ancestors dealt with putting these values into actions.
Finally, as our understanding of sensory health changes, so do our values. We are born into the values of our family, community and society. As such as we grow older and go through cycles of change, our values change and become more personal. As cycles of positive disintegrations are achieved, an individual moves away from following the rules of a group towards a deeper understanding of his/her identity and creates values more in tune with that understanding of the self. Valuing solitude, for instance, may emerge as a highly sensitive child begins to understand the need to decompress, even if his/her family encourages high level of social activities. Over time, all of these elements can lead us to a deeper sense of awareness.
Dr Aron believes that high levels of awareness and emotional responsiveness are fundamental features of humans characterized as HSPs. Nonetheless, as Stanley Greenspan[cxix] explains, each child he sees in his practice has a different way of taking in sensations, planning actions, sequencing and so forth. Each has a different sensory profile, different levels of thinking, and different levels of self-awareness. He considers that the key to helping children adjust to their world is to find if there is an underlying cause for potential over or under-stimulation and strengthen their core abilities instead on focusing on surface symptoms.
Central to this model is the cyclical nature of change. For every type of perception that we can attain, those directly related to the layers found in this model: the senses, the body, space, time and our awareness, exist a corresponding type of awareness. To be healthy, highly sensitive children need to learn how to develop self-awareness and over time evolve to incorporate what they have learned in their understanding of the senses, the body, space, time and our awareness itself.
Layer 5: Awareness: Senses, Others, Environment, emotional Responses, Neurons, Empathy, Balance, Genes
Sensory self-awareness seems complex in that sensory communication includes all the previous layers, which are intertwined in a dance of influence with one another that impacts how our senses react. If one of these elements is out of balance, how we perceive the world changes. As highly sensitive children develop awareness, they can begin to notice and later on analyze the sensory inputs they are receiving and use them from a less unconscious place. One cycle of change will be completed when calibration of the senses alters to accommodate these modifications and a new type of perception of the environment will begin to take place that incorporates this evolving awareness.
Self-awareness of spatial boundaries is crucial to a highly sensitive child’s well being. It is key to distinguish between the self, the environment, and others. This awareness is the first step to building personal sensory literacy and, in turn, developing tools for self-regulation that will help develop healthier behavioural and emotional response to what is sensed and to go through for positive disintegration processes by understanding who and how we “are” within the environment. Once a highly sensitive child can understand he/she is not the entire environment, he or she can begin to differentiate between energy and other signals coming from his or her body and other spatial elements. By doing so, he/she can lessen anxieties, responding to external elements more consciously.
Awareness of time can help create sustainable alteration to life, by slowly shifting elements over time. Given that profound sensory change gets us closer to our empathic self, and given that rna adapts to the environment, replacing spatial toxicity with spatial harmony could, over time, lead to a adjustment in our dna.
Finally self-awareness of awareness itself is central to deep personal listening. It is the catalyst necessary for a highly sensitive child or person to develop sensory insight, to self-regulate, to monitor and to stabilize intention, to better “feel” energy and information flow in the “me” body, others, between “us” and the world. Self-awareness and self-regulation are key to self-care, self-reflection towards “others” awareness and self-realization. Through self-awareness, it becomes possible to develop strategies to block out toxic sensory inputs and become capable of making conscious decisions to balance sensory inputs.
Self-awareness is also key to developing sensory insights tools, a gateway to insure sensory and other type of gifted children understand who they are, how to be or how to develop healthy sensorial and emotional strategies. Without such a step, our brilliant, creative and natural gifted will continue to have to numb their senses and suffer as adults. If made available, these tools can create adjustments toward self- realization, last layer of this model.
Layer 6: Well Being/ Self realization
As Annemarie Roeper explains: “To understand any human being, any child, and certainly any gifted child, we need to focus on the Self, the inner core. The Self has no choice but to pursue its inner goal, the way a flower must follow its inner destination.”
Consequently, a pluralist and personalized model of health is essential to a highly sensitive child in order to foster positive perception of higher sensitivity or overexcitability, and to develop individual differences and autonomy from the group (Aron, 2006)[cxx].
A self-realization process can be understood as a psychological and/or spiritual process, which leads people to find and walk their own path.
In psychology, this process is called autopsychology (Dąbrowski, 1967) [cxxi], a way to develop our own self-growth and find our own self-expression. Self-realization is similar to the process of enlightenment found in most spiritual traditions.
Self realization happens over time. The integral theory model[cxxii] suggests a personal development progression through levels (or waves) of reality. In the figure below, we see levels or waves in each quadrant demonstrating a holarchy, a kind of hierarchy wherein each new level transcends the limits of the previous levels but includes the essential aspects of those same levels. Each wave inherits the wave of the past and adds a new level of organization or capacity. As a result, each level of complexity or depth is both a part of a larger structure and a whole structure in and of itself. In the subjective realm, sensations are transcended and included in impulses, which are transcended and included in emotions, which are transcended and included in symbols, which are transcended and included in concepts. Likewise, in the intersubjective realm this dynamic occurs from archaic interpretations to magical explanations, to mythical stories, to rational views, to integral understandings. In the objective realm this movement occurs from atoms to molecules, to cells, to tissues, to organs. And in the interobjective realm this occurs in the movement from galaxies to planets, to ecosystems, to families, to villages. A general pattern of evolution or development occurs in each quadrant: depth enfolds (i.e., folds in on itself) and complexity increases (i.e., expands out and includes more).”
Figure 17: Some levels in the four quadrants.
This spectrum participate in the general movement of a widening identity: from “me” (egocentric) to “my group” (ethnocentric) to “my country” (sociocentric) to “all of us” (worldcentric) to “all beings” (planetcentric) to finally “all of reality” (Kosmoscentric). This general trajectory of expanding awareness can bring us closer to who we are.
While in this model, a linear sequence of stages is identified, it seems more likely that we jump from one level to another, sometimes forward, sometimes backward, depending on our personal growth development. While in this model, the sensitive self is positioned in the highest levels of development, for a highly sensitive child, it is the base. From this notion of self, the rest will derive. When connecting to ancestral knowledge, an individual can move backwards in time, increasing familial and cultural knowledge, which will alter the notion of “self” necessary for self-realization. Once these processes are moving through us, we can begin to participate in sharing our knowledge and help younger generations adapt to their environment.
This can happen once a highly sensitive child has learned to recalibrate the senses, train the mind to positive approaches to perceive and analyze the world, developed sensory insights and understand himself or herself. And, eventually, as adults, they may become able to pass on the sensory knowledge they have acquired to others and help them on their own journey to self-realization.
Figure 19: HSP Health Model
E= Environment & Social Life
Considering space as vital to sensory health leads to examine the role of the environment on a child’s sensory experience. Consequently, understanding a highly sensitive child’s sensory health requires “detective” work since what is toxic can be without matter, form, odour, visual, or other clues we are used to recognize. All of the experiences of a child with a family, the world and technology provide the senses with multitudes of sensory inputs. This complex landscape of stimuli informs the child of his/her existence in the world. Often, a child is not capable of understanding where he/she begins and where the world ends. This confusion can create distress in a child who cannot articulate the effect of toxicity on his/her sense of being. If you are ticklish, imagine these invisible forces tickling you constantly without any way of expressing your discomfort. Imagine not having the words to say this tickling is too strong and the adults around you not even knowing what tickling is. This is the dilemma heightened senses can create in a child.
It is essential for parents to help children determine the sensory boundaries that exist in space and through the senses. The simple acknowledgment of a sensory spatial dimension would be the first step in developing social and cultural learning focused on sensory experiences and on developing the literacy necessary to interpret spatial communication signals and to develop vocabulary to describe them. Such a step would allow children to be able to discuss sensory discomfort instead of them relying on external behaviours, “over” or “under” reactions, as the only communication tool available to express their distress.
Helping sensory gifted individuals who do not belong to cultures that acknowledge their uniqueness, means relearning the language of the senses and how to communicate through them. As society at large is unaware of these issues, it is up to us, parents and adults who are involved with these children to help them rediscover their gifts in a positive way, developing sensory self-awareness in order to be able to self-regulate their senses, key to self-care, and to understand and reflect on their position in spatial social life. All these steps are crucial to being able to be with others in a healthy way. But in the end, how we understand heightened sensory experiences and other sensitivities is a choice.
The prevailing idea of the last few centuries has been to let the outside world shape who we are. The rise in ADHD, autism and other child related mental “disorders” represent a dangerous testimony to the long-term damage this logic is having on some of our children. Our children are being stressed by our methods to the point of mental distress and eventually illness. This is a form of cultural genocide that in the end will only bring more trauma to our lives.
Another approach, which is growing in popularity, is to help children grow from the inside out. To let their being slowly adjust to the world they are in, to help them develop their own self awareness, and to help them build self-esteem and self-reliance. This approach means accepting that their development will take time and does not necessarily follow a standard path. This means redefining many ways of looking at our environment, parenting, care giving, social and spatial life and schooling.
We can choose to see these children’s enhanced sensory communication systems as disorders or natural abilities; as something to be cured or something to be accommodated and developed. The use of drugs and now genetic therapy being developed to regulate children’s behaviours seem like very dangerous paths to follow. First because we do not understand the long term effects of these modalities on children, and second because drug intervention stop children from learning and develop the self-awareness of spatial communication necessary to understand and develop the self-regulating skills and sensory, mental and physical tools they need to live a healthy and lucid adult life.
We as parents are face with a difficult choice, to continue to train our children to social and cultural values that will disembody them, repress their gifts and move them away from their true nature, or to insure our lives are designed to help them grow into who they are and develop strategies suited to their uniqueness.
With a hsc health framework in place, it becomes possible to think of approaches to help highly sensitive children be more attuned to their needs and specificities. A gentler approach can help them begin to explore their own experiences without fear of being considered ill. Adopting a health model for highly sensitive people and sensory processing sensitive people that is based on sensorial and sensitivities literacy may be very helpful. The framework described in this chapter is intended to help us and our children develop sensory literacy and the development of self-organizing mind, sensorial, emotional “sight” tools. In the last part of this book, we will examine what we can do in life, media, education and communities to reintroduce sensory wellness. In the next chapter, we will begin by exploring what a sensory life diet can be.
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