The Highly Sensitive Geek

GeekMom
Photo: InkkStudios iStock Photograph

Even if we don’t own one ourselves*, we’ve all seen them in playgroups, at the park, at shopping malls, or in classrooms, those kids who just seem to react more quickly–and more intensely–to sensory input. The toddler who screams inconsolably when subject to fluorescent lights, the baby who startles so severely at loud noises they have mastered the backflip by two months of age, the ten year old still terrified by movies that no longer frighten his peers, or the child who has to have all the tags cut from their clothing, and wears their socks inside out so the toe seams don’t hurt.

Well, Dear Reader, I raised one.** And I am here to tell you that Highly Sensitive Geek is not as much of an oxymoron as it might first appear. In fact, I think it’s a stereotype we can move beyond. I’m going to postulate further and guess that there is a healthy portion of you out there who are also raising Highly Sensitive Geeks, or at the very least, know one.

So what exactly IS a Highly Sensitive Geek Person, anyway?

First of all, let’s be clear on what it’s not. It is not about having a tender heart (although that can be part of it) or getting one’s feelings hurt too easily. It is an inborn temperament trait, not a sign of emotional neediness or illness.

It addresses how strongly a person perceives and processes external stimulation.

Highly Sensitive People’s nervous systems are hard-wired to pick up on things that others miss, or to pick up on things earlier. Not only do they feel things others don’t, but they react more intensely/strongly to what they feel. They are  hyper aware of their surroundings and the stimuli around them. The nervous systems of Highly Sensitive People become aroused more easily, and are therefore easily over-aroused. That state of over-stimulation can easily become stressful and overwhelming.

Oftentimes, especially if a person doesn’t understand what is happening, that physiological stress can be perceived or mistaken as emotional input because they feel similar.

This hyper sensitive trait is not just limited to humans; it has been observed in mice, cats, monkeys, horses, and dogs. Further, according to Elaine Aron, the lead researcher into high levels of sensitivity, a full 15-20% of the population is estimated to be highly sensitive. That’s a pretty big slice. For context, 8-15% of people are left-handed, 1-2% of people have red hair, 7% of men have some form of color blindness, and 15% of the population have IQs over 115.

Lest the more scientific among you scoff too quickly, know that there is solid science behind this idea. Additionally, the body fluids of Highly Sensitive Kids contain more cortisol (the stress hormone), as well as indications of higher levels of nerepinephrine. Furthermore, some researchers believe hyper-sensitivity has played a beneficial role in our evolution. Perhaps it was the highly sensitive who were able to first hear predators approaching, or catch a whiff of the sulfur gases of a long dormant volcano becoming active, or pick up on the atmospheric disturbance that presaged a coming storm so the tribe could get to safety. (In fairness, however, I will point out that there is disagreement as to whether high sensitivity is a plus or a minus. I believe that can largely be determined by our attitude.)

So what does high sensitivity have to do with geeks?

A large number of scientists and mathematicians are intuitive thinkers rather than sensory processors. Intuition is closely linked to that trait that makes a person highly sensitive. Perhaps your little math wiz is also wears his clothes inside out to avoid the seams. Or your budding biologist likes to put in earplugs while she studies in order to avoid everyday noises that are overwhelming to her. Or maybe your child is a musical savant, who has to have his clothes washed in dye and fragrance free detergent to keep from getting rashes.

Highly Sensitive people are also highly conscientious, able to concentrate deeply, are good at things that require accuracy and the ability to differentiate between seemingly similar things, are able to focus on a subject or interest with a high degree of absorption–moving from interested to expert to full-on geek in quick succession, are active learners, and often absorb knowledge without trying to do so consciously. Highly sensitive people are often creative (in all fields, not just the arts) and seem to possess intuitive knowledge.

But there are downsides, too. As any parent knows, too much stimulation, of any sort, leads to major meltdowns and malfunctioning. Many times what is perceived as a tantrum over not getting a new toy or being able to get a snow cone is the over-stimulation erupting in the only way it can. Even worse, if the child is not helped to understand their own nature, and have loving supportive adults who can honor that, that hyper sensitivity can easily turn into a fearful, inhibited, withdrawn child.

What are some clues that your child might be highly sensitive? There is a questionnaire for kids here (and one for adults here) but some things to look for are: highly aware of sensory input, very particular about the feel of their clothing, have a strong sense of smell, a strong gag reflex, are a picky eater, need absolute quiet to sleep, are sensitive to loud sounds, easily stimulated by sugar or caffeinated sodas, startle easily, are easily affected by others’ moods, are easily disturbed by frightening or violent TV shows, movies, or video games. Additionally, they might have performance anxiety before tests, games, or recitals that greatly affect their ability to perform.

How can we parents or concerned adults help the highly sensitive child? This will present even more of a challenge if you or your spouse are not also highly sensitive. It will be harder–and even more important–for you to make an effort to understand this trait and frame it for both yourself and your child in a positive way.

  1. Train yourself to pay attention to stimulation levels.
  2. Observe which sorts of over stimulation your child seems most sensitive to.
  3. Teach them the words they need to articulate and communicate the feelings they are experiencing.
  4. Look for ways to remove or reduce the stimulation or overly arousing activities where possible.
  5. The Highly Sensitive Kid is like an emotional barometer or lightning rod for the family. If you or your spouse are suffering from stress or anxiety, you can be certain your Highly Sensitive Kid will pick up on it and react to it.
  6. Respect their preferences. They are not mere whims intended to drive you insane, but true reactions to things that are truly irritating their nervous systems.
  7. Help them understand what’s happening physically so they won’t misread it as emotional distress.
  8. Help them (and yourself) feel good about their sensitivity. Think in positive terms rather than negative.
  9. Help your child understand that their physiological reaction is not the same thing as fear.

Keep in mind that like so many personal traits, whether something is a positive influence in our lives or a negative one is determined in large part by how we view it. Since it is not likely to go away, there is really no point in trying to squelch it or train it away and, in fact, a lot of harm can be done. Instead, recognize the ways it can enhance your child’s life and your family dynamics, and help the child see what wonderful ways they can contribute to their world using the highly developed senses they posses.

* I am fully aware that we do not own our children, but it sounded funnier that way.
** I only have two sons, so if you know one of them, that is NOT the one I’m talking about.

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16 thoughts on “The Highly Sensitive Geek

  1. I didn’t realize it until very recently (last week actually – what a coincidence) but I am a highly sensitive person. I took the self test and scored a whopping 22! I distinctly remember hating the seams of socks and ripping labels out of clothing. To this day, even reading a description of a scary movie or hearing someone discuss a plot gives me bad thoughts and nightmares for weeks or even months.

    I also just realized that I am married to a highly sensitive man, though in a different way that I am. I have never met anyone with a stronger sense of smell than him, and he generally refuses to wear socks because he doesn’t like the way they feel. What a match huh?

    Hopefully now that I have realized this about myself, I will be able to recognize it if it is a trait in my kids, and help them deal with it accordingly. I do think it’s true that my sensitive nature has led me to be a geek (uplifting sci fi like Star Trek really appeals to me, as does thinking and figuring out how things work and what may happen in the future). I think that being highly sensitive can be a blessing so long as you learn how to adapt so it is a strength rather than a weakness.

  2. What a great article! This information is so important for me in my current job field and as a future parent. Thanks for bringing attention to such a little-discussed subject.

  3. Cara, I think that’s the key–having enough self-knowledge to understand that about oneself (or teach kid’s to know it about themselves) and then find a way to turn it into a positive.

    BlessedBlogger–isn’t it a relief to learn you’re not alone?? I was gobsmacked when I realized it was a trait and not a personal failing. 🙂

    Katherine, so glad it brings insight to your professional field as well as a future parent!

  4. Great article! I’m highly sensitive, and while it can be a struggle at times, it has made me a better writer. I’m also raising a son with sensory issues, and so many of the suggestions you make ring true! I do believe there are advantages, although sometimes you have to look a little harder to find them.

  5. I am in shock. I thought that I had an anxiety disorder, or that I was shy or introverted, but between the articles you posted and the self-test, I finally feel like whatever it is that causes me to gag at any intense smell, weird texture, or gross taste, cry over marching bands (it’s just too overwhelming), laugh hysterically when tickled, and hate socks with seams, is somehow related to how sensitive I am emotionally.

    Basically for the first time in years, I feel like there isn’t something wrong with me. Maybe I am not a problem to be solved after all?

    Wow. My mind is completely blown. Thank you Thank you. Thank you. Holy crap thank you.

  6. Wow, Robin–yet another article that I was amazed to find describes me to a T. First the introvert thing (which was not a surprise) and this, too! Even without the test, I was nodding in recognition with nearly everything you wrote about, and then I scored 22 on the test. And I was even more sensitive as a child, in certain respects.

    Thanks so much for posting this! I’ll have to look for the book.

  7. I am also a highly sensitive individual. Something that I never realized about myself — until I had a couple of children and discovered that they have sensory processing issues, and one of whom has autism. But labels in clothes have always driven me crazy! It never occured to me until I started learning ways to help my kids cope that (duh!): I can cut the tags out of my clothes! I’m also extremely sensitive to noise. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have bionic ears. I can hear the TV on low or people whispering from several rooms away. No wonder places with lots of loud noises always irritate me! And no wonder that kids who don’t know enough about this stuff to figure out the “why” of it all, can have such a hard time in difficult situations!

    1. “And no wonder that kids who don’t know enough about this stuff to figure out the “why” of it all, can have such a hard time in difficult situations!”

      Precisely!

      And my son has bionic ears, just like you do. He can hear the TV on MUTE, from four rooms away. ::shaking my head::

  8. This is very interesting—our older daughter may be a highly sensitive kid, based on some of these criteria, and I must admit that we often don’t understand why she reacts the way she does. This might help smooth over difficult interactions.

  9. While I appreciate the positive approach this piece takes towards the “highly sensitive” I must take issue with the fact it never actually addresses the fact that these behaviors are most often due to a neurological condition called Sensory Processing Disorder.

    My son has Sensory Processing Disorder. I belong to an international group of parent advocates who write about raising children with the condition.

    This piece is right about a lot of the ways to help deal with the sensitivities on a daily basis but misses the most important point – it’s a legitimate medical disorder that people are born with, and medical treatment can help by diminishing the sensitivities. My son has a pediatric neurologist, two occupational therapists and a speech therapist and we’ll soon be adding a pediatric neuropsychiatrist to the mix. And it works WONDERS. Because treatment at an early age for these sensitivities actually helps the brain reroute the faulty neural pathways and can dramatically mitigate symptoms.

    I urge anyone who thinks they have a “highly sensitive” child to seek an evaluation, preferably from an OT specialized in sensory integration. It can improve your child’s life immeasurably. You can learn more at SPDFoundation.net.

    1. Hi Michelle!

      Thanks for the link to the very informative SPDFoundation.net. From reading that site, and Dr. Aron’s own addressing of SPD, (http://www.hsperson.com/pages/2Feb09.htm) it seems to me they are two separate things, especially when I look at the Red Flag list on the SPD site. (http://spdfoundation.net/redflags.html.) Or perhaps they are two ends of one spectrum.

      Either way, I don’t think that these traits are ‘most often’ a sign of SPD. Not when high sensitivity affects 15-20% of the population and the SPD Foundation lists SPD at 5% of the population. However, I think your point is a good one—that if one’s child’s sensitivities seem on the extreme end, it makes sense to have him evaluated by a specialist.

      It is WONDERFUL to hear how well your son’s treatment is working!

  10. I would like to say I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’m a HSP myself and have read the book from Elaine Aron. I have to say that it is determined positive or negative by how you view it; but being an HSP is neither positive or negative in itself (just like emotions are neither positive or negative).

    In general, being an HSP means you experience everything more intensely (such as pleasure and pain). If you look at it factually, it gives you a number of drawbacks and a number of benefits. What matters is how you choose to incorporate these drawbacks/benefits into your life.

    Just look at it like this, you are unique. Since you are unique, you are special. Because you are special, you are scarce. Because you are scarce, you have something that other people in this world desire.

    We are a special breed of human beings (like how some ants are specially breed for combat {the ones with the pincers}). I wouldn’t say we’re mutant, but it’s cool to think of myself like that.

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