Does your child hate the feel of labels on her clothes? Is he picky about what socks he’ll wear, or the texture of foods? Does she find certain noises excruciating?
If so, or if he’s more sensitive than most children to other types of sensory input, he might have sensual overexcitabilies.
Sensual overexcitability means you experience sounds, sights, touch, smell and/or tastes in a heightened way. You might intensely enjoy or even crave certain sensory experiences, while other forms of sensory stimulation make you feel stressed, angry or upset.
In this post I’ll share some examples of how sensual OE looks in my family. I’ll also consider whether or not it matters that we identify the underlying cause of the sensitivity.
People with sensual OE are often very sensitive to the feel of fabrics. They might spend ten minutes lining up their socks so that the seams don’t rub (and choose to go bare-footed as often as possible).
A woollen jumper can feel like a hair shirt. Women might need to wear a bra size too big in the back, because tight or constricting clothes are intolerable. My poor husband jokes that he only gets to see me dressed at weekends, but that’s not as exciting as it sounds – I’m always in my pyjamas (oh so comfy!) by the time he gets home from work at 7:00pm.
When it comes to temperature, layers are a sensitive person’s best friend. Right now I’m sitting on a train with my shoes off, pulling my cardigan on and off again as the train’s heating blasts out and a cold draft whips through the train whenever the doors open. Before I knew about sensual OE I would marvel at the willpower of people who could leave their coats buttoned up on in a hot, crowded underground train. Now I know they just don’t experience temperature in the same way I do.
Other tactile experiences can feel really good. When he’s upset, my ten-year-old curls up with our dogs or cat, letting the feel of their soft fur instantly calm him. Some children with sensual OEs stay attached to their soft toys or blankets until long after their peers have outgrown them. Cuddles and hugs can feel heavenly.
Some kids with sensual OEs crave the feel of things in their mouths. My son has a drawerful of chewable toys, but I still find his desk littered with bits of half-chewed plastic (I’m usually glad that at least he’s not sucking on his T-shirt). Chewing gum makes a visit to the hairdressers a whole lot more bearable. I think the cupfuls of ice my kids munch through every day might also have something to do with their sensual OEs.
And you know those deep baskets in Starbucks, filled with bags of coffee nestled among springy shredded paper? No? I’d never noticed them either, until I set out to solve the mystery of the soggy piles of paper I kept finding in my washing machine. It turned out that while I was ordering my Americanos, Jasper had taken to filling his pockets with the springy stuff, ready to crinkle deliciously to his heart’s content. 😀
I’m personally affected by this one to such a degree that I can’t imagine living in a world where the everyday sounds of modern life wash over you unnoticed.
When I’m trying to focus, I find noises at best distracting and at worst extremely stressful. My solution is to carry ear plugs, earphones and a white noise app wherever I go. Ahh the bliss of instant peace!
In restaurants I try to sit next to a wall so I can focus on my companions, protected from the cacophony of clanging crockery and other diners’ conversations.
On a more positive note, nothing begins my day better than standing at my bedroom window and listening to the birdsong for a few minutes. At concerts, I can experience an intense high as the energy of the music flows through my body.
People with this OE also commonly experience misophonia – an intense dislike of certain sounds (for example people eating, cutlery scraping on plates, or what my daughter describes as ’the sound of fingernails running down a school blazer’).
A person with sensual OEs might be intensely moved by a colourful sunset, a beautiful view or the sight of a raindrop glistening on a petal.
Sensually OE people can also be distracted or stressed by repetitive movements in their field of vision.
4. Tastes and smells
Kids with sensual OE can be sensitive to the tastes and textures of food, which can require their parents to be extremely resourceful when it comes to ensuring a balanced diet.
Smells often also trigger extreme reactions. My daughter, for instance, can’t step foot in a fast-food restaurant. I know of other children whose full-on flight or fight response kicks in when smells are too strong for them or who plead with their parents to “turn the smell off!”
The positive side of sensual OE is that pleasant tastes and aromas can be enjoyed intensely. My kids love theme parks, but when we spent two weeks in Disneyworld a few years ago Jasper’s holiday journal was filled with descriptions and pictures not of the rides, but of hot dogs and ice cream!
Sensual overexcitability, sensory processing disorder, highly sensitive or autism?
All these sensitivities might be the only non-average aspect of a person’s make-up, or they might form part of a bigger picture. Do we need to know their underlying cause, or is it enough to manage the ‘symptoms’? In my experience it’s helpful to do both.
First of all, a child with sensory issues needs help learning strategies to manage his sensitivities. If I’m on a train and the person next to me starts noisily eating an apple, I can change seats or block out the noise with headphones. Kids have much less control over their environments. We don’t need to know the underlying cause of a child’s sensitivity to compassionately address their needs and start to teach them coping skills.
On the other hand, dealing with sensory sensitivity in isolation can lead to an inaccurate or incomplete diagnosis, which could obscure the bigger picture and delay the child receiving help with other issues they might be facing.
I remember the relief my husband and I felt when we were told that our seven-year old had sensory processing disorder. We thought the diagnosis meant our son would get the right sort of help. But we felt more lost than ever when, after a year of occupational therapy, there was no change in his behaviour. It wasn’t until we finally looked at what was going on in the light of Jasper’s other overexcitabilities [intellectual, psychomotor and imaginational] that we were able to make sense of the whole picture and start to deal with all his needs.
In the UK especially, some children with sensory issues are incorrectly diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. These kids’ parents might know the label is an awkward fit, but in the absence of an alternative explanation they don’t know where to turn. My intention in creating this blog is to help share information about those other possibilities. I don’t claim to be an expert, but it’s no understatement to say that my life was transformed by the PowerWood OE workshop I went to last year – finally all the pieces of the puzzle came together and we were able to move forward.
If you suspect that you or someone in your family has overexcitabiliites, you can find out by taking this free online OE questionnaire.
Sensual OE – Further Resources
PowerWood – Sensual OE
Living with Intensity, Daniels and Piechowski
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How does sensual overexcitability look in your family? Perhaps you’ll share the example that will help another person solve the puzzle of what’s going on with herself or her child.
This is part 2 of my series on the five types of overexcitability. After I’ve finished writing the series I’ll be sharing some of the strategies that have helped us as a family dealing with OEs. I hope you’ll join me on my journey.