#3 Gifted Students are Often Extremely Sensitive

The physical and mental filter through which outside stimuli enters the mind and body of a gifted person seems to be equipped with an automatic 100X Increase Sensory Intensity component and there is NO on-off option to it.  The stimuli can be sensual – touch, sound, taste, smell and sight.  It can also be social, moral, logical or ethical stimuli.  The 100X Increase Sensory Intensity filter automatically increases the intensity of the stimuli and the beautiful, complex brain of the gifted person can ramp up the emotional response to the intensified stimuli and.…  Aahhh! Sheesh!

Gifted children and adults are often extremely sensitive – soft drumming sounds can sound like a jackhammer, elastic waistbands can feel like a strip of sheet metal, a casual, gruff word can seem like a dreadful criticism, and being lied to can feel like the worst moral betrayal.

Pearl S. Buck had this to say about the sensitivity of creative people which we can easily relate to gifted people:

The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive. To them… a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death.

Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create — so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, their very breath is cut off…

They must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency they are not really alive unless they are creating.     ~Pearl S. Buck

Having more than one intensely sensitive gifted person living under one roof can be stressful … very stressful at times … very stressful most times.  My husband and youngest son keep me on my toes on their numerous witch hunts to find that maddening sound that I don’t hear, or that offensive odor that I don’t smell.  Have you ever seen a teen have to pull his shirt up over his nose each and every time he opens the fridge?  Their continuous battle of who gets to control the thermostat at our house keeps me entertained if I so choose to look at it as entertainment.  They will debate the extreme and quite noticeable difference between 68 degrees and 69 degrees as very similar to living in a sauna (69 degrees) versus living in a meat locker (68 degrees).  I say “debate” because I don’t want to let you know they are actually arguing over 1 degree.  And when I get in those rare moods where I need  want to push my husband’s buttons, I grab an empty plastic water bottle and squeeze it repeatedly to make those sharp, high-pitched sounds— the really cheap, soft plastic bottles make the most irritating sounds!  Hey, I’m really just being thoughtful by trying to de-sensitize him!  *wink*

But, there is a serious side to the intense sensitivity of gifted children and adults we should all be aware of.  My youngest son has the most exacting sense of moral, ethical, logical and social justice that has resulted in some misguided, but harsh consequences for him.

When my youngest gifted son was nine years old, we lived on a cul-de-sac full of neighbors with children.  One day when all the children were out playing with bikes, trikes and all manner of wheeled toys, my son grabbed an old wood skateboard – a hand-me-down from one of his older brothers – and ran out to join the other kids.  One child, a few years younger than my son, kept begging to ride his skateboard, and my son kept refusing to let him.  The parent of this child was getting frustrated with what looked to him as my son’s refusal to share, and he loudly voiced his frustration to my son with some very hurtful and personally derogatory words.  My son came home devastated and ready to sell  our house and move away.  My husband and I gently probed for details with the assumption our son really could learn to share his things more, and what we discovered was not an inability to share, but his intense sense of moral and social sensitivity towards this younger child.  Our old wood skateboard’s surface was peppered with splinters, and the well-worn wheels were uneven which made the skateboard very wobbly.  He tried to tell the child’s father that his skateboard was not safe and he could see that this father assumed he was lying in order not to share.  To our son, it would have been a grave moral and social breach to knowingly allow this younger child to ride his skateboard and then subsequently injure himself.  He sensed the need to protect this younger child because to our son, obviously this father was more concerned with quieting his nagging son than to protect his son from injury.  And like many a parent would have said after hearing that a neighbor had needlessly yelled at your child, we told him he should have just let the other child ride it.  To our amazement, our son had sensed this social and moral situation one step further, and he said he had thought about just letting the younger child ride his skateboard which would have probably led to the child being hurt.  We continued to listen.  Our son went on to explain that he could see this child’s father was already aggravated by his own son’s repeated, but rejected pleas to ride the skateboard.  If he had allowed this younger child to ride the faulty skateboard and the child was injured, then this father would have become even more agitated by his child’s crying from his injuries.  Our son had filtered the entire situation through his strong moral and social sensitivity, and he told us he had weighed the negative consequences of the various outcomes, and he had decided that it was his moral and social responsibility to protect this younger child because the child’s father was not willing to listen to our son’s reasoning or to protect his own son.  Our son’s moral and social sensitivity really would not have allowed him to choose to do anything other than what he felt was morally and socially just.

A more recent example happened a little more than a year ago when my son was in 8th grade.  His English teacher at the time had two sections of 8th grade English and my son was in the first section.  One day in class, his English teacher announced a pop quiz, a one-question test.  The class had to define one vocabulary word and the students either received a score of 100% or 0%.  My son’s intense sense of moral, ethical, logical and social awareness swiftly and powerfully came into play.  The first ethical transgression to hit his 100X Increase Sensory Intensity filter was the vocabulary word itself.  It was not a word they had been assigned; it in fact had come from a chapter they had not been assigned to read yet.  The second stimuli to be filtered that triggered the red flags of moral, ethical, logical and social awareness was the logistics and fairness of a one-question test – either the student made a 100% A+ or he utterly failed.  Before and after the infamous test, his English teacher repeatedly warned his class not to tell the next class what the one question was on the test because she was giving the same test to the next class.  When my son’s class was dismissed, he ran into the students of the next English class and he purposely told them what that infamous one question was on their upcoming pop quiz!  Most of us would justifiably see this as direct disobedience and disrespect, but to my son, he sensed this situation as a significant moral, ethical and logistical violation against his fellow students for whom he strongly felt an obligation to protect.  Given his intense sensitivity to his own moral responsibilities, he gave the other 8th graders the question, but NOT the answer.  In the end, he did pay a high price for his extreme sensitivity to what he intensely felt were moral, ethical, logical and social infractions.  Had his English teacher understood the traits and characteristics of gifted children more than just recognizing their intelligence, she may have been familiar with the extreme sensitivities of giftedness and chosen her reaction differently.  Instead she chose to come and pull him out of his next class into the hallway.  She asked him if he had told the students in her second English class the test question.  Without hesitation, he told her he did tell them the question, but he said he did not give them the answer.  He also told her WHY he told the other 8th graders the question.  He explained to her that a one-question test was completely unfair.  She got in his face and asked him, “Do you think you’re cool doing this?”  He stood his ground.  His punishment was a 0% F on the one-question test.  Plus, some subsequent retaliatory bullying from this teacher.

Had his English teacher understood that gifted students often have intense sensitivities, maybe she would have calmly and privately asked my son why he chose to give away the one-question test, and then afforded him the time to listen to his explanation.

As parents of gifted children, we know that raising our children is difficult.  As teachers of gifted children, we need to know and understand the traits and characteristics of gifted children – more than just their intelligence and educational needs.  Knowing and understanding the extreme sensitivities of gifted children can help the adults who love and teach gifted students interact with them in ways that help more than harm the gifted child.

In my recent blog post A Gifted Child Checklist for Teachers ,  I listed ten basic characteristics and traits of gifted children.  It is a list intended to easily help teachers and others by providing a brief and basic listing of gifted traits and characteristics which aren’t always so well-known, recognized or obvious.  I also hoped my checklist would bust some myths and correct some incorrect information about giftedness.

There are many resources and books on the intense sensitivity of gifted people.  I have listed several here:

RELATED POSTS:

Casting Stones at Cacti.  Our Intolerance of Gifted People

My Gifted Child, You’ve Been CHOPPED

One Spoonful of Peas: Parenting a Gifted Child with Emotional Intensities

He Told the Teacher WHAT?

ARTICLES:

SENG – Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted

Living with Sensory Sensitivities by Corin Barsily Goodwin and Mika Gustavson, Gifted Homeschoolers Forum –

Sensitivities on Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page

BOOKS:

Living With Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and the Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults  

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8 Comments on “#3 Gifted Students are Often Extremely Sensitive

  1. “We cannot be guilty of turning a blind eye to the social and emotional issues and needs of students with gifts and talents. If we do nothing we become complicit in the decline of their psychological well being.” Terry Cross, Ph.D.

  2. I get so sad every time my son runs through the house covering his nose to escape the smell of what I’ve just been cooking in the kitchen.

    • Angela, I completely understand! My feelings get so hurt when my son can’t eat what I’ve cooked because he can’t get past the smell. On the bright side, both my husband and son can tell if something is getting close to being burned in enough time for me to save supper from burning …. and then they complain about the smell! 🙂

  3. I am a bit sensitive to smells, I can not handle processing multiple sounds and I have a hate for people and animals touching me. It is annoying when people think I am joking because a girl and her friends kept hugging and tapping me (after I warned then persistently ) until one day I screamed at one of them in the cafeteria which I couldn’t control because lack of control over their constant annoying actions were making me feel nervous and unable to maintain control over my personal space.

    • Dan Dan,

      Thank you for all three of your recent comments, and yes, it is not easy for many gifted children like you. I can understand how you feel. But you are showing great strength in adapting to uncomfortable situations, and you have tremendous insight into your social interactions. I am pretty sure you are one amazing person who will grow up into an even more amazing adult! Keep moving forward 🙂

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