Recently I completed a post graduate paper on Sensory Processing for Diverse Populations. Being the sucker I am, I decided to focus on gifted children. Let me tell you, there really is a lack of coordinated scientific research regarding helping gifted children to understand their Overexcitabilities and identify strategies to manage these in the classroom. In my practice, I see children each week who struggle to cope with the demands of the classroom environment either because they have difficulty coping with the sounds or lights, or they find sitting still all day difficult. Keeping in mind Dabrowski’s Overexcitabilities, is it any wonder???
“Dunn (2009) points to the paradox that is created for clinicians when working with gifted children; sensory sensitivity is the foundation for strengths that we find in gifted children… The goal should always be to maintain a child’s strengths, including the capacity to create, problem solve and innovate. These skills are based on sensory experience!”
Along with the information regarding Overexcitabilities, there is a wide range of literature pointing to the structural differences between a gifted and non-gifted brain (for those of the thinking – yes, a new name for giftedness would be really helpful here!). Some of the differences identified include:
Thicker myelin sheaths, and increased number of glial cells to nourish the neuron. Myelin is the equivalent of rubber insulation around electrical wire. It helps the electrical signals in the brain move rapidly and accurately.
Increased number of dendritic branches linking the neurons. Basically, because neurons each connect to more neurons, messages can pass to more areas of the brain. Think of a five-way roundabout vs a three-way roundabout. So many options of places to go!
Thicker corpus collosum (the bit that links the left and right brain). Information from the left and right brain moves more rapidly, leading to increased processing speed.
Heightened signal-detection in the cortex. Children notice and consider things that may go undetected by others such as sounds outside, details within a song or painting, changes in boy language or facial expression leading to greater awareness of detail.
Multimodal processing – information is processing in a number of areas of the brain. For example on hearing the word ‘cat’ a child might ‘see’ the image and the word, where a gifted child may ‘see’ the image of the cat and the word, ‘hear’ purring and meowing, ‘smell’ the cat, ‘feel’ the cat’s fur and the sensation of cuddling a cat (or being scratched), ‘remember’ the family members who have cats and their relationship (eg a much loved grandparent). This creates a richer recall of the meaning of the word ‘cat’.
Earlier input of the reticular formation which stimulates awareness and attention. Pay more attention to sensory information, sooner after first being exposed to it, for example a song, a painting, light and shadow, tactile information. This can be distracting, but also enables children to process situations with increased depth, increasing the quality of memories.
Increased temporal acuity. Increased ability to differentiate between different types of sound, such as chords within a song, changes in the tone of people’s voices, or background noises.Again, this can be distracting, but also enables children to process situations with increased depth, increasing the quality of memories.
Increased tactile and visual discrimination. Increased ability to differentiate between different colours, shapes and movement.Again, this can be distracting, but also enables children to process situations with increased depth, increasing the quality of memories.
Increased ability to differentiate between different touch experiences.Again, this can be distracting, but also enables children to process situations with increased depth, increasing the quality of memories.
What difference does all that make?
Gere et al (2009) noted that gifted children score significantly differently from non-gifted same-age peers on the Sensory Profile 2. They also suggest that these differences may be a reason for gifted children’s rapid, meaningful learning. If this assessment is carried out by a clinician not experienced in working with gifted children, typical Overexcitabilities may be incorrectly identified as sensory integration issues. Worse, they may be considered an indication of Autistic Spectrum Disorder or ADHD/ADD. It is important to note that most gifted children will never need to be referred to an occupational therapist or other clinician. Those that are likely find sensory experiences overwhelming, or are having difficulty staying engaged in school, social activities or play.
Dunn (2009) points to the paradox that is created for clinicians when working with gifted children; sensory sensitivity is the foundation for strengths that we find in gifted children, therefore, the role of an occupational therapist should be to work alongside gifted children (and the adults who support them) to assist them to do what they need and want to do within their sensory experience, rather than reducing their sensory sensitivity. The goal should always be to maintain a child’s strengths, including the capacity to create, problem solve and innovate. These skills are based on sensory experience!
How do you help gifted children who are overwhelmed by their sensory experiences?
Gifted children, along with many other children, benefit from learning to identify their sensory preferences, signs they are becoming overwhelmed and strategies to bring themselves back to a comfortable state of arousal, particularly if their sensory experiences alter their engagement in learning and play. This requires a significant level of education. Programs such as the Alert Program® can be helpful in providing a structure for this.
It is recommended that a program focused on sensory modulation, particularly accommodation and compensation, is used when working with gifted children (Shrive, 2013). Strategies may include altering classroom layout, using fidget toys or wobble cushions, or allowing children to chew gum or chewellery in class to maintain attention. Having knowledge of the child’s sensory processing is essential, and it is extremely helpful to have an understanding of the application of sensory modulation techniques when working with children with Overexcitabilities.
Clinicians working with gifted children must be able to pick apart Overexcitabilities from sensory modulation or sensory integration disorders, along with differentiating these from diagnoses such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder or ADHD. Experienced clinicians will also be able to recognise children who are twice exceptional; in this scenario, gifted with sensory modulation/integration disorder, ASD and/or ADHD.
Dunn, W. (2009). Invited commentary on “sensory sensitivities of gifted children”. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 63(3)
Gere, D., Capps, S., Mitchell, D.W., & Grubbs, E. (2009). Sensory sensitivities of sifted children. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 63(3)
Helmbold, N., Troche, S., & Rammsayer, T. (2006). Temporal information processing and pitch discrimination as predictors of general intelligence.* Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 60*(4), 294-306. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.op.idm.oclc.org/docview/200363679?accountid=39660
Li, Jordanova & Lindenberger (1998). From good senses to good sense: A link between tactile information processing and intelligence. Intelligence, 26( 2). Retrieved from (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160289699800579)
Vaivre-Douret, L. (2011). Developmental and Cognitive Characteristics of “High-Level Potentialities” (Highly Gifted) Children. International Journal of Pediatrics. Retrieved from http://doi.org/10.1155/2011/420297