Tips for Parents: Sensory Issues in Gifted Kids: A Developmental Overview and Recommendations for Parenting
Houskamp, B.
Davidson Institute for Talent Development

This Tips for Parents article is from a seminar hosted by Beth Houskamp, Ph.D., who defines sensory processing issues and discusses them in regards to affect regulation.

What are Sensory Issues?

  • Sensory processing issues can occur in all sensory modalities (i.e. visual, tactile, or auditory) as well as in the vestibular and proprioceptive domains. Understanding and treatment of sensory processing difficulties has primarily been the role of occupational therapists.
  • A child who is oversensitive to tactile stimulation might exhibit behaviors such as pushing others away when a person gets too close or might not like wearing certain types of clothing. On the other hand, a child who is underresponsive to tactile stimulation might be observed constantly touching other people or things in his environment or might physically hurt others without fully understanding the pain he is causing.
  • In addition, struggles with processing vestibular and proprioceptive stimuli can appear as gross and fine motor problems- awkwardness in running, poor posture and core body strength, difficulties with fine motor tasks, such as handwriting.
  • Sensory processing involves the limbic system of the brain and gifted children are born with intense limbic systems

Sensory Issues and Affect Regulation

Given that children who are intellectually gifted are born with very intense limbic systems, it makes sense that their limbic systems might get overwhelmed easily and that highly gifted children may have challenges processing intense stimulation. They may struggle with processing the stimulation coming their way and with being able to modulate the intensity of their emotional responses to the stimulation. Because their limbic systems are so intense, gifted children may actually struggle more with stimulating environments (such as loud birthday parties) than other children of the same age. These struggles processing intense sensory information may occur for a longer span of development as well, because it takes more time for the higher level executive functioning part of the brain to develop the skills to help manage the limbic system- the executive functioning areas of the brain in highly gifted kids are being given a very difficult task. And yet people often expect gifted children to handle these situations more maturely, because of their advanced intellectual abilities in other areas.

It’s important to remember that this is a developmental process and that sensory processing challenges for gifted children do often becomes less of an issue as a child gets older. In her work on asynchronous development, Linda Silverman has talked about gifted children being “out of sync” between the ages of about 3 years and 9 years of age. In terms of sensory issues, it makes some sense if we step back and consider that for an intellectually gifted child with a very intense limbic system it might actually take longer for the executive functioning areas of the brain to mature and develop enough to be able to help the very intense limbic system cope. Additionally, between the ages of 3 and 9 years of age our society expects children to be able to handle intense stimulation, in classrooms, for instance. So the gap between what children may be able to tolerate and what is expected of them can be quite large during those years. By about age 9 years, the higher level cognitive functioning is up and running to a larger degree and the gifted child can often handle environmental stress more easily. And this ability to handle environmental stress often continues to increase as the child matures.

Sensory Processing and Affect Regulation in Everyday Life

  • First, it’s important just to recognize what a struggle sensory processing and its accompanying limbic system meltdowns can be. If you have a child who is having emotional “meltdowns,” they are most likely letting you know that they are having a hard time and whatever the situation they are in, it is more than they can cope with at that time.
  • You can think through the situation for your child- what Ross Greene (author of The Explosive Child) calls “serving as your child’s frontal lobe.”
    • Identify situations or stimulation that trigger meltdowns
    • Structure things differently to approach these situations differently
  • An initial step is to figure out what environmental stimuli might the child be struggling to process and to determine some basics, such as:
    • are there other options for this child during this time
    • are there other ways to meet the goal if it is an important one
    • are there ways to work with the situation to make it less overwhelming for the child
  • Referral to an occupational therapist is also appropriate for children who are struggling with sensory processing challenges.

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