Two decades ago, at a small university in south Texas, I began studying Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS). This is a sensitivity to external stimuli and emotional and cognitive input, meaning that it isn’t just our physical senses being affected. We are the worriers, the over-thinkers; our heads and hearts are on overtime, and it’s exhausting. Although SPS can make life more complicated, it isn’t classed as a disorder; it is linked to irregular function of the serotonin neurotransmitter, and it is thought that 15% to 20% of the population have it. My study started because I had always felt I was more sensitive than many of my peers and longed for an explanation, if not to explain myself then at least to understand myself.
A decade later, living in the northeast of England with my husband and two children, all the members of my family seemed to exhibit an above-average sensitivity to the world around us. At the age of 6, my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). I almost dismissed the offer of a diagnosis, thinking we’re just hypersensitive. Following his diagnosis and another stint of research, I became convinced that Asperger’s also explained my inner experience pretty well. The main traits of Asperger’s are considered to be rigidity and a difficulty with reading nonverbal communication (also called ‘social communication’). AS, or high-functioning autistic spectrum condition, is sometimes classed as a disorder and sometimes not, depending on what part of the world one lives in and the individual’s level of need. Unlike sensory processing sensitivities, Asperger’s is linked to the GABA neurotransmitter. These are two real and different conditions. In the years following my son’s diagnosis, my daughter and I were also diagnosed with AS.
Some people have sensory processing sensitivities and no form of autism. Some people have autism and no sensory sensitivities, but many have both. It’s estimated that 65% of people on the autistic spectrum also have sensory sensitivities. Because of our diagnoses, my children and I can, in theory, hold up a piece of paper and request the support and understanding we feel we need. There is little anyone else can do to help me with my rigidities, except to tolerate them when they show up. Some people are very good with clear and direct communication, which is hugely helpful, but mostly the work that needs to be done is my own. I have to manage in the world as it is, and nothing helps me to do that better than being mindful about my sensory issues. Anyone who knows someone with AS will know that the other traits get bigger when they’re overstimulated. So sensory support—at school, work and home—often tends to be the main focus.
In my work as a therapist, I meet both clients and colleagues who seem to have an above-average sensitivity to life. Sometimes in the form of SPS & AS, but also in the form of mood disorders or physical ailments that are worsened by stress. I think that’s what draws us into therapy (on either side of the desk): when we struggle with stress we are more likely to want to explore what’s going on intra-psychically. And our needs, with or without a neurological irregularity, are mostly the same: more downtime, more calmness and more understanding from others. Not to blur the lines between having an autism diagnosis or not, but I feel that there is a spectrum that extends beyond the autistic spectrum. It’s the Sensitivity Spectrum.
People on the Sensitivity Spectrum have much to contribute to the world, often in the form of art, activism, caring, compassion, empathy and understanding to those in our lives, so long as we can sustain our energy rather than burn out from the exhaustion that comes with our heightened sensitivities. This is the real challenge we face, especially in the quickening pace of modern times, in a society that is goal-oriented and abhors ‘excuses’, ‘whining’ or ‘laziness’, terms those of us on the Sensitivity Spectrum are more vulnerable to hearing when we dare to slow down or process our feelings. My response to such messages is that we have a lot to offer and that self-care must be our first act of social responsibility.
This and other articles of mine can be seen on HUFFPOST