Tag Archives: sensory sensitivity in the gifted

Sensitivity and Gifted Children: The Mind That Floods With Feeling

Gifted children are often the most emotional and empathic toddlers in the room.  They are the kids who cry when the ASPCA runs those tearjerker commercials.   They are the teens who want to develop an NGO to provide clean water in developing countries.  Gifted children don’t do this to get a boost on a college application, but because it physically hurts them to think of another’s suffering.  Your gifted child’s mind cannot help but to feel strongly and care deeply.  

How can you help your child navigate these feelings without crushing their altruism and energy? The first step in helping these children to handle their sensitive social and emotional nature starts with adults understanding that this isn’t a personality quirk; it’s a neurological bias that accompanies an impressively active and intense brain that doesn’t “turn off”.

Sensory Sensitivity, Autism, and Gifted Sensitivity
When OTs usually refer to sensitivity, we usually speak about the physical sensitivity that our clients may experience.  We know that sensory sensitivity can lead to avoidance of sensory input and poor modulation of arousal.  The poor modulator is the child who has a hard time staying in an optimal state of calm, struggling to focus attention on accomplishing their daily activities.  This can be true with gifted children, but is not always a feature of giftedness.

We also know that children with ASD find it difficult to connect with another’s emotional experience due to their neurological wiring.  It is not that they choose to misinterpret other’s emotions.  They may long to know what others are thinking and what to do and say in interpersonal relationships.  Temple Grandin and John Elder Robison have written about their difficulties and discomfort in understanding how friends and family feel.

The gifted client is swimming at the other end of this pool:  they have profound emotional connections to people (and sometimes feelings for objects as well!),  even strong connections with the imagined emotional experiences of strangers!  Again, this is not just their temperament or their personality; the emotional flood is coming from their brain wiring that generates deep connections between profound concepts and expansive comprehension of situations. Gifted kids see very clearly how the human race is all one, how affecting a part results in affecting the whole, etc. It can be overwhelming for them to know this at 4. Or 14. Gifted children are not little adults, even when testing indicates amazingly advanced mental abilities. Their asynchronous development means that they may understand concepts but still cry when they lose a game. They are still children.

There is some science behind the idea that gifted children are emotionally advanced as well as academically advanced.  Researchers on giftedness are eager to display their fMRI views of the gifted brain as it thinks, showing it humming along at warp speed, lighting up like a Christmas tree in areas that are mostly quiet for other people.  I would guess that those mirror neurons (proposed to support empathy and interpersonal skills) that seem inactive in ASD are probably switched on 24/7 in gifted individuals.  

Parents get their first taste of this quality when they see how attuned their baby is to their speech and their movements.  “She would just watch our faces all day long!” is a familiar report when asked about early development.  Toddlers begin to be aware of their own emotions and the emotions of others, and the gifted toddler can be quite a handful as she sorts this out. The gifted child may want to volunteer, may become upset when reading news stories, and may insist that the family participate in activities for social causes. On the other hand, a gifted child may become sad and overwhelmed by situations that other children are unable to comprehend. It can lead to feelings of powerlessness and anger when the adults in their world don’t respond in kind or disregard their concerns.

My message to parents and teachers of gifted children, and those who work with children showing strong emotions and advanced skills without a gifted label is to consider that the strong reactions that you see may be a brain effect, not a personality defect. Your next step: supporting a child to handle the flood of emotion, and help them channel their feelings into productive actions and interactions that build social skills, not isolation and a negative self-image.
Continue reading

How Occupational Therapy Can Help Gifted Children (And Their Exhausted Parents!)

rockybeachGifted children have abilities that make them more sensitive to their bodies, their world and the people in it.  They notice sensations, emotional states and the interplay between the physical and the non-physical world in ways that non-gifted people do not.  Exquisite sensitivity often comes at a price for gifted children and their parents.

Think about this in the same way an electrical device cannot support additional volts of current.   A parent’s pride in her child’s amazing abilities can be overshadowed at times by the fatigue and frustration in dealing with tantrums, rigidity, sensitivity, and a child’s seemingly inexhaustible energy.  Occupational therapy can help manage the current and “keep the lights on” without power surges destroying the functioning of the computer.

Particularly in the early years, gifted children can become easily overwhelmed when their emotions, their impulses and their perceptions exceed their ability to process everything they experience.  They may feel clothing or food as intensely strong sensations.  They may want to swing for an hour, then cry when it is time to leave the playground. They might be aware of a parent’s sadness or another child’s frustration more acutely, but have no idea what is happening or what to do.  They really “get” the plight of the polar bears on the disappearing ice sheets.  After all, they can read the New York Times at 5!    They just don’t know what to do with all these feelings, thoughts, desires and sensations.

Some abilities in gifted children are advanced by years, such as reading or math.  The ability to share with a sibling?  Not advanced at all!  This “asynchronous development” can cause internal conflict and may result in more frequent and more intense outbursts, refusal to participate in school or playdates, sleep issues and more.

OT’s with a strong sensory processing background can help gifted children and their families navigate the complex sensory-motor, cognitive and emotional/social overload that happens when brainpower exceeds management capacity.  What unique skills does an OT bring to the table?  The ability to assess and implement a whole-person approach.    Talking about behavior, making a rewards chart, and cognitively understanding where all that energy comes from is simply not enough to make the days and the weeks easier for a gifted child.  The occupational therapist’s toolbox is deeper and wider, and includes physical interventions that look like play, social/emotional mastery experiences (not just talk), and sensory-based activities that support self-regulation as a child grows into their amazing abilities.  Take a look at Gifted and Struggling? Meet the Twice Exceptional Student and How OT Can Help if your child is gifted but dealing with issues such as sensory processing, ADD, learning issues or ASD.

Occupational therapists do use cognitive strategies such as the “How Does Your Engine Run?” program by Williams and  Shellenbarger.  A cognitively gifted 4 year-old may be fully capable of engaging in this useful program.  A sensory diet, one of the core concepts of most sensory processing treatment programs, can help children discharge and manage sensitivity and excitement throughout the day.

Parents that know how to help their child regulate their arousal feel empowered, not defeated, when their child becomes overwhelmed.  Children learn that their parents “get” them, and that they can turn to them for support instead of criticism.  Feeling understood and feeling capable is the bedrock of self-confidence and self-esteem.  Gifted individuals need to know that they are more than their stratospheric IQ, and this is where it begins.

Dr. Harvey Karp’s Happiest Toddler on the Block program is amazingly effective at teaching children how to handle the strong emotions of early childhood, and teaching parents how to support their children without crushing their spirit.  I use his incredible techniques with every gifted client I see.  Children with ASD respond, children with SPD respond, and gifted children respond.  Dr. Karp’s strategies allow children to learn how to express their feelings without judgement, and teach parents to set limits and place consequences on behavior without crushing a child’s spirit.  Isn’t that what we all want for our children?  Check out Stretch Your Toddler’s Patience, Starting Today! even if your child is not a toddler.  It turns out that Dr. Karp’s easy technique for handling demands works on impatient people at almost any age.  You just alter your presentation to fit their emotional state and communication level!

Research suggests that the way a gifted brain functions is always going to be different than the typical child.  I believe that therapy for gifted children effects change in a very similar manner to therapy for the autistic child; therapy can make daily life easier, and it can help a child learn to handle their thoughts and experiences with greater comfort and ease.  Brain function changes as it learns to adapt and make better connections, but the structure remains unique.  Occupational therapists support gifted children and their families in exactly the same way we support people in the special needs community:  without judgement or dismissing problems that arise in living.

If you are the parent of a gifted child, and you would like more support, take a look at some of my previous posts on The Happiest Toddler strategies such as  Is Your Gifted Child Also Your Most Strong Willed Child As Well?Your Bossy Baby or Toddler May Be Gifted. Really. Here Are The Signs You Are Missing! and on sensory sensitivity Dressing Without Tears: Sensory-Sensitive Strategies That Work.  You can use these concepts today to help your gifted child!

Want more personalized support?  Visit my website tranquil babies and purchase a phone consultation.  You will have a chance to ask questions and get answers that directly give you more calm and more joy in your home…today!