In IS IT TOUCHING?, I explored how the traditional view of sensitivity is limited --and somewhat discriminatory toward highly sensitive people and people with sensory processing differences (SPD). I meant to put forth the idea that the way we perceive and process things should be recognized as a sort of neurological/physical/emotional/temperamental spectrum. Simply put, we have widely divergent levels of physical and emotional sensitivity. Furthermore, as self-advocates and advocates for our children and loved ones, it is up to us to decide whether our sensory (I include emotions as feelings here) processing differences are problematic, or glorious, or both, or neither...
This post was one of my most-read ever, and elicited many responses, both public and private.
One interesting theme that emerged from these conversations was that of EXPRESSION. I heard from people who have incredibly strong sensory and/or emotional feelings – but hardly express them at all. And I heard from people who feel they are “all over the place” in a sort of hot mess way and want to calm their actions, reactions and attitudes down (here is where some calming sensory activities might come in handy!). I heard from parents with super-sensitive, expressive children whom they are trying to understand...In short, it emerged that what we show (in those actions, reactions, and attitudes) is not just an exact reflection of what we feel.
So, this month, I’d like to bring your attention to the possibility that sensitivity does not correlate directly or evenly with expression or external reactivity. Some people develop coping mechanisms to hamper their reactions because of cultural or familial pressures. Some are naturally less expressive. Some people stuff their feelings. Others let it all hang out, sometimes in spades – intentionally, or because they cannot suppress the expression of their reactions.
Another manifestation of the sensitivity/expression interplay may be seen in those of us with sensory processing differences where certain stimuli that might seem minor to others (tags on clothing, bright lights, strong tastes or textures in food, temperature variations...) are interpreted by the brain as major. This may then result, expression-wise, in sensory overload or “acting out” or “shutting down” or...
At the extremes, you get people who may appear histrionic – your drama kings and queens who scream when stepping into a puddle of water (guilty) or a person gives them side eye; or your heartless stoics, who don’t even flinch when a finger is cut off or a loved one dies.
Notably, the histrionics and the stoicism may reflect/express SIMILAR levels of sensitivity, exteriorized in different ways. What we are experiencing inside is not always expressed in ways that exactly match our inner experience of intensity. People can be low on the sensitivity scale, but high on the expression scale; or they may feel deeply, yet not be expressive of that externally...
We may feel or express less – the proverbial “stone;” we may feel or express more, experiencing or acting explosively, like “fireworks.” These two things – what we feel and what we show - don’t usually occur in a matchy-matchy fashion.
What’s more, sensitivity itself can be emotional, physical, neurological...; while expression can be through actions, words, attitudes, moods...AND, as this scale shows, these factors can intersect in a Full Spectrum of ways!
Figure I – Showing Chart: Sensitivity and Expression: Stone to Fireworks, Squared
In addition, our attempts to modulate our expression are not always in line with our intentions.
As I wrote in IS IT TOUCHING?, I am a total sap and literally – embarrassingly! - unable to not cry under a variety of circumstances, from funerals and other clearly sad occasions to anything touching (try this for a tear test), sentimental, or even joyous.
On the other hand, things that move me powerfully but are hurtful, complicated, or angering can overwhelm me and cause me to shut down and seem withdrawn or even cause a meltdown (internally!). And I am just one feeling/expressing person, a fraction of my Full Spectrum family. I am still trying to figure out my son, who sometimes can appear extremely insensitive as a reaction to sensory overload; my daughter, who seems impervious to all but a very few extremely, tremendously sensitive areas; and Pardner, who has the rare gift of being sensitive but non-reactive, observant and caring, yet as steady as can be. But Pardner has his areas of sensitivity, too: do not put your bike up against his car, nor, if you are a child with potential child gore on your hands, or a hairy cat in your arms, should you “touch the threads.”
So, finally, our sensitivities and expressions thereof can also vary from experience to experience, with different situations being more or less
In the neurodiverse world, terms like “over-responder” and “under-responder” get thrown around, as if there is a mean level of response that is correct. Add on different ideas about social cues and behavior, reactions that may be judged “inappropriate,” or “unexpected”...Whew. I’m looking to expand our perspective on what’s a natural part of the range of human being, not criticize people. Human sensitivity and expression weave together in diverse, complex and fascinating ways, in a dynamic matrix represented here by a spectrum from stones to fireworks.
What holds for all of us is that we want to be our healthiest selves. We have the privilege and responsibility of figuring out what that means - for our children, for ourselves, for our communities.
Full Spectrum Mama
Welcome to the Sensory Blog Hop — a monthly gathering of posts from sensory bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and The Jenny Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about what it’s like to have Sensory Processing Disorder and to raise a sensory kiddo!