Body Bubbles, "Picky" Eating, Itchy Tags
Sensory processing differences are common for intense gifted and twice-exceptional kids
Do you sometimes wonder why your child is particularly sensitive or intense? Is it because of their giftedness? Because their environment isn’t a good fit? Because of their ADHD, dyslexia, or autistic brain?
All of these factors can contribute to emotional sensitivity or intensity. But there’s one source of intensity and sensitivity that is often overlooked: sensory processing differences.
Sensory processing differences are not well-known and are rarely discussed in professional training programs for teachers or therapists - and definitely not covered in most parenting books!
Commonly-missed signs of sensory processing differences in gifted and twice-exceptional kids and teens
Did you know that all of the following could be related to sensory processing differences? If your child…
Stands close to other people or has a hard time maintaining a “body bubble” or “personal space”
Hugs tightly or plays roughly even when asked to use less pressure or force
Pushes their body into caregivers, potentially when distressed, tired, or overstimulated
Bumps into others or into walls/objects frequently
Finds clothing tags itchy or uncomfortable; can't wear clothes with tags
Refuses to wear (or hates to wear) jeans, socks, or other specific clothing items
Dislikes the feel of grass, sand, lotion, oil, or other substances
Resists/avoids brushing their teeth, brushing their hair, taking a shower, having water fall on their head, etc. - or complains these activities are painful
Frequently rocks back in their chair or sits in their chair in unusual positions (knees up, sitting on their foot)
Doesn’t notice they’re hungry or doesn't notice they're full
Doesn’t notice they need to use the bathroom; holds their urine or feces; wets the bed or has daytime accidents
Frequently drops things, falls over, or otherwise seems “clumsy”
Stands on one leg like a flamingo
Stands or walks on the sides of their feet or tiptoes
Upset by, complains about, or avoids loud noises, specific sounds, bright sunlight, florescent lighting, or other specific sensory stimuli
Becomes overwhelmed or upset in busy settings like airports, cafeterias, restaurants, busy classrooms, gyms
Is a “picky” eater, eats a limited number of foods, or dislikes certain textures of food
Has high pain tolerance (e.g., broke a bone but didn’t notice, seems to under-react to pain)
Has low pain tolerance
In my work with parents of gifted and twice-exceptional kids, these types of experiences and differences are relatively common but are rarely well-understood. True differences in sensory processing may go unidentified for years because sensory processing is not on most people’s radar.
It's important to understand and identify sensory processing differences
If sensory processing differences aren’t identified or understood, a child with sensory differences can appear “clueless,” “forgetful,” “melodramatic,” “odd,” or “quirky.” Or they may seem to be “over-reacting,” “exaggerating,” “overly sensitive,” or being willfully difficult or avoidant.
When kids' sensory differences aren't well-understood, it can contribute to blame, shame, and family conflict.
For example, if your child has unrecognized sensory differences, you may find yourself wondering, “why don’t you eat when you’re hungry?” or “why can’t you respect other people’s body bubble?” You may worry your child is willful or lacks respect for others, but they may simply experience the world differently through their sensory systems. Similarly, many kids struggle to complete cleaning chores and hygiene tasks because of sensory discomfort or overwhelm - while parents are left to wonder if their child is putting on an act or a show to avoid their responsibilities.
If any of these worries or thoughts is familiar, I highly recommend you learn more about sensory processing.
Even mild differences in sensory processing - if not understood - can leave someone feeling like there’s something wrong with them, and unsure how to support themselves.
Hunger cues: A personal example of sensory processing differences
Here’s a personal example: For most of my life, I never considered I might have sensory processing differences because I’m not particularly bothered by loud sounds, bright or flashing lights, or food textures.
However, as I’ve learned more about sensory processing over the couple of years, I’ve realized I have a number of sensory processing differences that I’ve learned to accommodate through trial and error.
One example is that I’ve had difficulty sensing my own hunger cues my whole life. I now know this is related to interoception, or the ability to sense and understand internal body cues. But I only learned about interoception recently.
When I was a child, I got terrible stomachaches at the end of the day, waiting for my parents to pick me up from daycare - but I never realized it was because I was hungry. When I was hungry and didn’t realize it, I would have strong emotional reactions to small events - like crying hard over a small disappointment.
By the time I start to notice a hungry feeling, I am usually so hungry that I start to feel anxious or panicked. This has led to awkward or tense social situations when I suddenly became focused on my need for a snack and could no longer enjoy the other activities at hand, or acted irritable because I was over-hungry.
For years I assumed my difficulties were personal or psychological instead of sensory-related, but I wasn’t sure how to make sense of them (my parents took a pretty progressive approach to shame-free eating). Still, I thought that I should work harder to “get in touch with my body” and “follow my inner cues” to eat more mindfully.
Despite my efforts and my own therapy, I now understand that these ideas never worked for me because I simply can’t feel those internal hunger cues like others can.
What has worked for me is developing a set of strategies and accommodations that keep me fed instead of hangry - I eat on a relatively predictable schedule instead of waiting to feel hungry; I carry snacks with me at all times; I usually snack before leaving the house; and I eat something immediately when I notice a hungry feeling, without worrying how healthy the food is or if it's the "right" time to eat.
Resources to learn more about sensory processing
Imagine if you could avoid some of your child’s meltdowns, pain, and sorrow by better understanding their sensory experiences and helping them learn to work with and accommodate their sensory differences and strengths. And imagine if you could help your child understand and accept their sensory differences instead of worrying there is something weird about them or something wrong they need to fix.
If you'd like to learn more about sensory processing from a neurodiversity-affirming lens, I've listed some of my favorite resources below. You may also consider seeking out an occupational therapist who is particularly knowledgeable about sensory processing differences.
Although these resources are not geared towards gifted and twice-exceptional kids specifically, they describe characteristics and experiences that, in my experience, are common among intense and sensitive gifted and 2e kids and teens.
Affirming Approaches to Picky Eating: Moving Beyond Systematic Desensitization with Naureen Hunani - from the Two Sides of the Spectrum podcast
Picky Eating, PDA, & PICA: What Every Feeding Therapist Should Know with Laura Hellfeld - from the Two Sides of the Spectrum podcast
8 Senses of the Body: The Hidden Sensory System - from Neurodivergent Insights, aka Dr. Megan Anna Neff . This blog posts gives a thorough description of each sensory system (did you know there were 8?) and lists key characteristics to help you identify whether your child may be hyper-sensitive or hypo-sensitive in each sensory system. The Neurodivergent Insights website includes other blogs about sensory processing you can explore if you want to learn more, as well as workbooks for purchase.
The OT Butterfly on Instagram
The Occuplaytional Therapist on Facebook
If you want more ideas like this directly to your inbox, sign up for Gifted Lab Notes, my weekly email with tips and information for parents of intense or sensitive gifted or twice-exceptional (2e) kids.
Sensory processing differences can contribute to emotional intensity and can actually be the source of power struggles and difficulties completing daily tasks. This is why the first week of my 8-week parent coaching program is devoting to understanding what makes your particular kid so intense - whether it's sensory processing differences, executive functioning differences, or other characteristics. Then I help you understand how to adjust your parenting to fit your kid's brain and body, so you're working together more as a team.
If this sounds good to you, I invite you to read more about my group coaching program Support Your Intense Gifted/2e Kid to see if it's a good fit for you and your family.