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Two decades ago, at a small university in south Texas, I began studying Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS). This is a sensitivity to external stimuli and emotional and cognitive input, meaning that it isn’t just our physical senses being affected. We are the worriers, the over-thinkers; our heads and hearts are on overtime, and it’s exhausting. Although SPS can make life more complicated, it isn’t classed as a disorder; it is linked to irregular function of the serotonin neurotransmitter, and it is thought that 15% to 20% of the population have it. My study started because I had always felt I was more sensitive than many of my peers and longed for an explanation, if not to explain myself then at least to understand myself.

A decade later, living in the northeast of England with my husband and two children, all the members of my family seemed to exhibit an above-average sensitivity to the world around us. At the age of 6, my son was diagnosed with autistic spectrum condition (ASC.) I almost dismissed the offer of a diagnosis, thinking we’re just hypersensitive. I would soon learn 65% of autistic people have sensory sensitivities. For more on this I recommend reading The Intense World Syndrome.

Following his diagnosis and another stint of research, I became convinced that ASC also explained my inner experience better than SPS alone. ASC also explained my need for information to be presented in a particular structure, my extreme responses to when ‘rules’ were broken or when something changed unexpectedly. Like it was for many my age discovering my way of being had a name was life altering. I shared my suspicions that I was autistic with my mother. To my surprise she informed me that when I was 6 I had also been offered this diagnosis. Her own parental judgment back then (1983) was that the label would do more harm than good. She declined the diagnosis and never told anyone about it. Some people find this shocking, but I get it. Autism is still badly misunderstood today, back then this label could have limited my education and life opportunities. Not because I was incapable but because people would hear ‘autism’ and assume that I was. Of course, in lieu of this label other assumptions about me were made such as that I was purposefully difficult, ridged or disinterested. I had to cope with some form of misjudgement either way and I think she made the best choice she could at that time. I know adults who believe they are autistic but still chose to avoid a label for exactly the same reasons. In the years following my son’s diagnosis, my don Daughter + Son = Non-binary child) and I were also finally diagnosed with ASC.

Today, in my work as a psychotherapist, I meet both clients and colleagues who seem to have an above-average sensitivity to life. There is a sub-group of us in the psy world. I think the hypersensitivity is what draws us into therapy (on either side of the desk): when we struggle with stress, we are more likely to want to explore what’s going on intra-psychically. And our needs, with or without a neurological deviation, are mostly the same: more downtime, more calmness and more understanding from others. Not to blur the lines between having an autism diagnosis or not, but I feel there is a spectrum that extends beyond the autistic spectrum. It’s the Sensitivity Spectrum.

People on the Sensitivity Spectrum have much to contribute to the world, often in the form of art, activism, caring, compassion, empathy and understanding to those in our lives, so long as we can sustain our energy rather than burn out from the exhaustion that comes with our heightened sensitivities. This is the real challenge we face, especially in a capitalist society that abhors ‘excuses’, ‘whining’ or ‘laziness’, (terms those of us on the Sensitivity Spectrum are more vulnerable to hearing when we don’t perform in the expected way.) My response to such messages is we have a lot to offer, and self-care must be our first act of social responsibility.

This and other articles of mine can be seen on HUFFPOST & SPECIAL NEEDS JUNGLE

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