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Question: What is Sensory Processing Sensitivity ?
Check out my 5 minute YouTube video for a succinct answer.
Sensory Processing Sensitivity vs. Sensory Processing Integration Disorder
By: Barbara Allen-Williams, Jacquelyn Strickland, LPC
Question: I’ve heard that Sensory Processing (Integration) Disorder (SPD) and Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) have common features and are related.. Is it true that they are variations of the same thing?
Answer: No, they are not the same, although the confusion is understandable. Sensory Processing Sensitivity, (or HSP, Highly Sensitive Person) is not a condition, a disorder, or a diagnosis. It is a genetic, innate, neutral trait. The HSP’s nervous system is highly organized but can become easily overstimulated not only by sensory stimuli, but also because of their more active prefrontal cortex, which results in greater Depth of Processing. Thanks to research conducted at Stony Brook University in New York, by Drs. Art and Elaine Aron, fMRIs have shown the prefrontal cortex of the HSP brain to be more active than non-HSPs.
Further, HSPs process stimuli in a highly organized, big picture way, which includes awareness of nuances and subtleties that others might not notice. At times, HSPs can become extremely overstimulated by the sheer amount of information they may be asked to process. Non-HSPs in our society, who make up about 80% of the general population, do not experience the same level of overstimulation that causes distress to HSPs, in their day to day experience of the world.
Sensory Processing (Integration) Disorder is a neurological disorder. It involves the senses; the vestibular system; proprioception, motor control, balance and spatial awareness, and causes sensory information to get “mixed up” in the brain resulting in responses that are inappropriate in the context in which they find themselves. (http://spdstar.org/what-is-spd/#defs) This can include random and disorganized processing of external stimuli, and can cause great distress, intensity and overstimulation. This overstimulation is sometimes confused with the overstimulation HSPs clearly experience, but it should be noted that the root cause of the overstimulation is not the same.
Regardless of the profound differences in these traits, there are ways to minimize overstimulation. Many with Sensory Processing Disorder have found success with occupational therapists who help them better integrate stimuli into their experience. Many with Sensory Processing Sensitivity have found success by simply become educated about their genetic trait. They learn to create a proper balance in their day which may include meditation, creative arts, walks in nature, yoga, and learning which environments serve them best. Many have found seeking outside professional help from those who are educated about SPS to be helpful — mainly to help them reframe and understand their experiences as being normal.
Perhaps the truest test of what differentiates SPS from not only SPD, but also other diagnoses such as Autism and Aspergers Symdrome, are the four things all HSPs have in common ~ the D.O.E.S. as defined and eloquently explained in Elaine Aron’s book, Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person.
D.O.E.S. refers to: Depth of Processing; Overstimulation; Emotional Intensity; and Sensory Sensitivity . For example here are some questions to ask in each category which help identify and differentiate Sensory Processing Sensitivity:
Depth of Processing:
- Does this person reflect more than others about the “way the world is going;” the meaning of life or their line of work?
- Does this person experience deeper feelings of empathy and feelings for others especially around social injustices, and those who may be suffering?
- Does this person exhibit personal insight and have a sense of long term consequences?
Over Stimulation –
- Does this person experience overstimulation and burn out due to the sheer amount of incoming information, experiencing a sense of not being able to handle any more? And when in a gentle environment, do they effectively process and integrate stimuli?
- Do others sometimes think something is wrong with them because they cannot handle as much as others seem to? This may be because HSPs often decline activities, even if enjoyable, in order to take care of themselves.
- Does this person need more sleep and downtime that the rest of their family and friends?
- Is this person more easily and appropriately moved to tears of joy, gratitude or relief, and equally moved to laughter whether by sheer silliness or subtle irony?
- Does this person react more to the emotions of others and often know what you are feeling far more often than others would?
- Does this person become more distressed by violent TV shows or movies; unfairness, bullying or other disturbing events?
Sensory Sensitivity –
- Is this person sensitive to changes in temperature, finding it uncomfortable to be too hot or too cold?
- Does this person have more side effects to caffeine, medications or need smaller dosages than others?
- Is this person more aware of the sound of a ticking clock or dripping water, subtle tastes and smells than others?
- Does this person notice what needs to be changed in an environment to make others more comfortable?
Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron
Sensory Processing Disorder :
Retired Therapist & Supervisor, Founder, Mentor & Trainer at National Centre for High Sensitivity (UK) www.hspsensitive.com & Growing Unlimited Therapeutic Consultancy www.growingunlimited.co.uk
Jacquelyn Strickland, LPC
Licensed Professional Counselor and co-founder of the HSP Gathering Retreats with Dr. Elaine Aron in 2001. www.lifeworkshelp.com Jacquelyn has worked exclusively with HSPs since 2000.