She's So Sensitive!

I have many memories of hearing (through my tears) the accusation that I was "too sensitive".  In adulthood, I grew to accept this as one of my weaknesses.  I worked on overcoming it.  

Until I spent the night on a friend's couch and picked up her copy of Raising Your Spirited Child and read the chapter on sensitivity.  I was looking for insights regarding my son, but found that I was recognizing myself in what I read.  And what I read was empowering.  Being sensitive, it turns out, is not a bad or wimpy thing or the result of some inability to develop a better characteristic.  It is an innate heightened perception of, and usually reaction to, sensory information.  You can't help it and it isn't bad, it's just the way you are.  

That means for me that the downside is the time I was unable to fight back tears of frustration in an important professional meeting.  But the upside is that my ability to perceive others' emotions and intentions from subtle cues in their voices, facial expressions, and body language enables me to connect easily with and work really well with others.  Which translates to the time I was able to successfully mediate a huge conflict between colleagues.  
For other sensitive people I know*, the downside may be an inability to let go of slight imperfections and inconsistencies and just efficiently finish that household project.  But the upside is excelling in perceiving, diagnosing, and fixing imperfections and inconsistencies in any type of mechanical system. Which translates to being a damned fine engineer who catches little things that no one else does and saves the day.  

And for my son, the downside is being overwhelmed by loud noises, such as the Sesame Street Live performance we tried unsuccessfully to go to.  But the upside is being the only kid in class who hears everything going on in the room and notices where everyone and everything is. Which translates to being the only one that notices the child that didn't receive her milk at snack time or remembers that so-and-so's shoes are under the slide outside.  

So, as it turns out, we are a sensitive family.  No doubt genetics played a large part here! And that means that we are more likely to get on each other's nerves and to need strategies for protecting ourselves from the onslaught of sensory information that we have a hard time not noticing.  

And we are fortunate that our sensitivities are not too broad and too intense. But what would it be like if they were?  I read an amazing article in the October 19th New York Times Magazine about an experimental school that is making gains with autistic teens.  The passage that struck me was this:

A child born at risk of an (Autism Spectrum Disorder) has cognitive and sensitivity issues that inhibit engagement. Pleasures enjoyed by a typical baby can upset him: a mother’s face seems too close, so the infant cranes away; the father’s tickles may produce fear reflexes rather than laughter. Meanwhile the sunlight is burning his eyes, the diaper scrapes his skin and the baby begins avoiding interaction with people at the cost of normal brain development.

It is incredibly sad and fascinating to think about this scenario.  Extreme sensitivity would lead a child to withdraw in an effort to protect itself, which would lead to a lack of reward for parents who tried to interact with the child in the normal way, which sets up a downward spiral of increasing detachment between them.  The child would lack the normal physical and emotional stimuli that lead to intellectual stimulation and proper development because of the lack of interaction.  And there is no way for anyone to recognize that this is what is going on at first.  By the time the adults become sure that something is truly amiss, critical periods of development have already passed by.  And, as the author states:

I begin to picture the brain metaphorically as a tangled ball of Christmas lights. When you plug it in, there are strands that light up perfectly and there are dark zones where a single burned-out bulb has caused a line to go out. If the bulb for Exchanging-Smiles-With-Mother doesn’t light up, then Empathy won’t be kindled farther along the strand, or Playfulness, or Theory of Mind (the insight that other people have different thoughts from yours). The electrical current won’t reach the social-skill set, the communication skills, creativity, humor or abstract thinking.

The exciting news is that even later in life, this school has helped autistic teens become more socially and emotionally connected to others, primarily through emphasizing intense interaction with the adults around them.  If only we could understand the cause of extreme sensitivity in the first place and lower it somehow.  Or at least recognize it and intervene as early as possible.  

And, if only we were more understanding of the normal human spectrum of sensitivity and could appreciate it's upsides more than we admonish people for its downsides.  

The next time I am accused of oversensitivity, I think I will (tearfully) reply, "Yes, I'm thankful for the gift".  

*am married to 

No comments: