Overexcitabilities - Friend or Foe

The other week I had the opportunity to present a forum for parents and teachers of gifted and twice exceptional children through the Otago Association for Gifted Children. The title was ‘Gifted Overexcitabilities – Friend or Foe’. In this, I explained the five Overexcitabilities (OEs, or intensities – the terms are interchangeable) described by Dabrowski, and explored how these can so easily be misdiagnosed.

One thing I hadn’t counted on was how much of an impact these explanations would have on parents. So many said “this explains so much about my childhood!”. This is exactly why we should be open about OEs and how they affect the way individuals engage in their environment and perform their roles. Children, and teens especially, are really good at finding reasons why they feel like aliens/freaks or whatever term they use to describe feeling different. This can lead to a deep depression, or anxiety from trying so hard to fit into a world that doesn’t understand their intellectual, sensory, motor, creative and emotional needs.

I focused on misdiagnosis because, sadly, I have come to realise that very few of my medical and allied health colleagues have even heard of giftedness as a challenge. I’ve worded that carefully – giftedness isn’t an issue in itself, but overwhelming OEs and/or inflexible environments are the perfect set up for misdiagnosis.

And it’s all in the language.

Think about a child who:

  • Intensely dives into a topic such as a particular musician or the mechanics of planes/flight. In the gifted world, we tend to call this “passion”, “interest”, or “strength” (intellectual OE).

  • Has difficulty coping with noisy situations, or find particular clothing uncomfortable (sensual OE).

  • S/he may struggle to relate to kids their own age because of their different interests (intellectual OE and asynchronous development) or because they just seek a different level of social engagement.

  • S/he may seem overly dramatic, overreacting to things that would not normally worry children (emotional OE).

  • S/he may yearn to move - pacing, tapping, humming, rocking or flapping their hands if no other movement is allowed (psychomotor OE).

Reworded, we could describe this child as having obsessions, sensory issues, poor emotional regulation, stimming behaviours, and poor social skills. Without awareness of normal gifted traits, it would be logical to conclude that a child may have autism! Most gifted children, following comprehensive assessment, won’t meet the DSM-V criteria for autism; this can be disappointing for parents trying to find explanations for why their child doesn’t fit the mould.

Other common misdiagnoses include:


  • Sensory Processing Disorder

  • Dyspraxia (Developmental Coordination Disorder), and other developmental delays

  • Mood Disorders such as bipolar disorder, clinical depression etc.

The irony is, the more we support children to use their Overexcitabilities - allowing them to explore concepts in depth, to move while they listen to the teacher, to wear earmuffs or listen to music while they work, embracing their big emotions, or to share learning through creating – the less their OEs will affect their ability to function. Why? Because then they can attend to what they need to do (playing, learning, chores etc) rather than focusing on fighting their OEs. As a result, children experience less anxiety and frustration, have more energy reserves for the day, and are able to show adults just what they are capable of. In turn, parents don’t tend to need explanations for why their child isn’t coping with typical childhood experiences.

So what can we do? Education and advocacy is key.

  • Use the term Overexcitability (or intensity if you prefer); explain what it means for your child.

  • Work alongside your child’s team (medical, allied health, education etc) to ensure everyone understands the unique make up of your child.

  • Ensure assessments are carried out by clinicians who are familiar with the needs of gifted children.

  • Keep in mind that children may be gifted AND have learning or developmental differences, or other disabilities. This is called twice exceptional (or 2e) and is a blog or five in itself!

Let’s embrace Overexcitabilities, after all it’s a child’s OEs that make them such a creative, intuitive, empathetic person. Overexcitabilities are what allow gifted individuals to innovate, create, and facilitate social change. Imagine what Tesla, Einstein, Mozart or da Vinci’s teachers and parents would have thought if they were raising these brilliant, quirky minds in today’s structured, fast-paced society?!

For those seeking further information, or looking for consultation in identifying gifted traits from other diagnoses, Leith Occupational Therapy offers professional development packages, and/or a consulting service via Skype, phone or in person. Get in touch to discuss your requirements.

NB: The image above depicts OEs explained as autism traits. Blue = sensual OE, pink = intellectual OE, green = emotional OE, purple = psychomotor OE. Imaginational OE is not included, as this is not a typical autism trait.