The Highly Sensitive Geek

Photo: InkkStudios iStock Photograph

Even if we don’t own one ourselves*, we’ve all seen them in playgroups, at the park, at shopping malls, or in classrooms, those kids who just seem to react more quickly–and more intensely–to sensory input. The toddler who screams inconsolably when subject to fluorescent lights, the baby who startles so severely at loud noises they have mastered the backflip by two months of age, the ten year old still terrified by movies that no longer frighten his peers, or the child who has to have all the tags cut from their clothing, and wears their socks inside out so the toe seams don’t hurt.

Well, Dear Reader, I raised one.** And I am here to tell you that Highly Sensitive Geek is not as much of an oxymoron as it might first appear. In fact, I think it’s a stereotype we can move beyond. I’m going to postulate further and guess that there is a healthy portion of you out there who are also raising Highly Sensitive Geeks, or at the very least, know one.

So what exactly IS a Highly Sensitive Geek Person, anyway?

First of all, let’s be clear on what it’s not. It is not about having a tender heart (although that can be part of it) or getting one’s feelings hurt too easily. It is an inborn temperament trait, not a sign of emotional neediness or illness.

It addresses how strongly a person perceives and processes external stimulation.

Highly Sensitive People’s nervous systems are hard-wired to pick up on things that others miss, or to pick up on things earlier. Not only do they feel things others don’t, but they react more intensely/strongly to what they feel. They are  hyper aware of their surroundings and the stimuli around them. The nervous systems of Highly Sensitive People become aroused more easily, and are therefore easily over-aroused. That state of over-stimulation can easily become stressful and overwhelming.

Oftentimes, especially if a person doesn’t understand what is happening, that physiological stress can be perceived or mistaken as emotional input because they feel similar.

This hyper sensitive trait is not just limited to humans; it has been observed in mice, cats, monkeys, horses, and dogs. Further, according to Elaine Aron, the lead researcher into high levels of sensitivity, a full 15-20% of the population is estimated to be highly sensitive. That’s a pretty big slice. For context, 8-15% of people are left-handed, 1-2% of people have red hair, 7% of men have some form of color blindness, and 15% of the population have IQs over 115.

Lest the more scientific among you scoff too quickly, know that there is solid science behind this idea. Additionally, the body fluids of Highly Sensitive Kids contain more cortisol (the stress hormone), as well as indications of higher levels of nerepinephrine. Furthermore, some researchers believe hyper-sensitivity has played a beneficial role in our evolution. Perhaps it was the highly sensitive who were able to first hear predators approaching, or catch a whiff of the sulfur gases of a long dormant volcano becoming active, or pick up on the atmospheric disturbance that presaged a coming storm so the tribe could get to safety. (In fairness, however, I will point out that there is disagreement as to whether high sensitivity is a plus or a minus. I believe that can largely be determined by our attitude.)

So what does high sensitivity have to do with geeks?

A large number of scientists and mathematicians are intuitive thinkers rather than sensory processors. Intuition is closely linked to that trait that makes a person highly sensitive. Perhaps your little math wiz is also wears his clothes inside out to avoid the seams. Or your budding biologist likes to put in earplugs while she studies in order to avoid everyday noises that are overwhelming to her. Or maybe your child is a musical savant, who has to have his clothes washed in dye and fragrance free detergent to keep from getting rashes.

Highly Sensitive people are also highly conscientious, able to concentrate deeply, are good at things that require accuracy and the ability to differentiate between seemingly similar things, are able to focus on a subject or interest with a high degree of absorption–moving from interested to expert to full-on geek in quick succession, are active learners, and often absorb knowledge without trying to do so consciously. Highly sensitive people are often creative (in all fields, not just the arts) and seem to possess intuitive knowledge.

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But there are downsides, too. As any parent knows, too much stimulation, of any sort, leads to major meltdowns and malfunctioning. Many times what is perceived as a tantrum over not getting a new toy or being able to get a snow cone is the over-stimulation erupting in the only way it can. Even worse, if the child is not helped to understand their own nature, and have loving supportive adults who can honor that, that hyper sensitivity can easily turn into a fearful, inhibited, withdrawn child.

What are some clues that your child might be highly sensitive? There is a questionnaire for kids here (and one for adults here) but some things to look for are: highly aware of sensory input, very particular about the feel of their clothing, have a strong sense of smell, a strong gag reflex, are a picky eater, need absolute quiet to sleep, are sensitive to loud sounds, easily stimulated by sugar or caffeinated sodas, startle easily, are easily affected by others’ moods, are easily disturbed by frightening or violent TV shows, movies, or video games. Additionally, they might have performance anxiety before tests, games, or recitals that greatly affect their ability to perform.

How can we parents or concerned adults help the highly sensitive child? This will present even more of a challenge if you or your spouse are not also highly sensitive. It will be harder–and even more important–for you to make an effort to understand this trait and frame it for both yourself and your child in a positive way.

  1. Train yourself to pay attention to stimulation levels.
  2. Observe which sorts of over stimulation your child seems most sensitive to.
  3. Teach them the words they need to articulate and communicate the feelings they are experiencing.
  4. Look for ways to remove or reduce the stimulation or overly arousing activities where possible.
  5. The Highly Sensitive Kid is like an emotional barometer or lightning rod for the family. If you or your spouse are suffering from stress or anxiety, you can be certain your Highly Sensitive Kid will pick up on it and react to it.
  6. Respect their preferences. They are not mere whims intended to drive you insane, but true reactions to things that are truly irritating their nervous systems.
  7. Help them understand what’s happening physically so they won’t misread it as emotional distress.
  8. Help them (and yourself) feel good about their sensitivity. Think in positive terms rather than negative.
  9. Help your child understand that their physiological reaction is not the same thing as fear.

Keep in mind that like so many personal traits, whether something is a positive influence in our lives or a negative one is determined in large part by how we view it. Since it is not likely to go away, there is really no point in trying to squelch it or train it away and, in fact, a lot of harm can be done. Instead, recognize the ways it can enhance your child’s life and your family dynamics, and help the child see what wonderful ways they can contribute to their world using the highly developed senses they posses.

* I am fully aware that we do not own our children, but it sounded funnier that way.
** I only have two sons, so if you know one of them, that is NOT the one I’m talking about.

The GeekMom blog is captained by Jenny Bristol and Corrina Lawson, and supported by a brilliant team of writers. Since launching in 2010, we’ve created a robust community of writers, readers, and media geeks, dedicated to the vision of creating a smart, savvy, social online experience for geek parents everywhere.