Dabrowski's Sensual Overexcitability of Gifted Children

Little girl smelling a flower

Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration includes what he called "overexcitabilities" or "super sensitivities." These are intensities in five different areas: the intellect, the imagination, the emotions, the five senses, and the neuromuscular system. Each of these five intensities creates traits that are easily recognized in many gifted children.

What is Sensual Overexcitability?

The sensual overexcitability is recognized by an intense or heightened response to sensual input.

That is anything that is experienced through the five senses. It is also marked by heightened sensuality, sexuality, astheticism, and craving for physical admiration.

Children with this overexcitability may have either negative or positive responses to stimulation to their senses. For example, they may find pleasure in the smell of paint -- or it could make them physically sick. Or they may love the touch of the silky material, but be driven to distraction by the feel of wool. Some parents have to cut tags out of clothing because the feel of the tags bother their children so much.

These children might also avoid loud sounds, for example, putting their hands over their ears in the movie theater. They may also refuse to eat certain foods because of the texture, or they may love other foods for the same reason. In addition, they can be incredibly sensitive to minute differences in the chemical composition of foods, being able to tell the difference in even small changes in a recipe, loving one version but hating another.

Children with the sensual overexcitability can also be moved sometimes to tears by the beauty of a sunset or by a poem, or piece or music or art. They may love gems and jewelry or other objects of beauty. The can tune in to the beauty of nature, focusing on what other don't even notice. They can notice dew drops on a flower and marvel and their beauty as they sparkle on a petal.

They may also crave being in the limelight.

As infants and, these children may cry immediately after their diapers get wet. They may have colic or allergic reactions as a result of intense sensitivity to foods. As toddlers, they may avoid walking on the grass in their bare feet because they hate the way the grass feels.

The Upside of the Sensual Overexcitability

Children with this overexcitability can appreciate music and art in ways that others can't imagine. The beauty of a brush stroke, the blending of colors, the lines of a sculpture, the melody and playing of a piece of music -- all can move them deeply, sometimes to tears. The same is true for the beauty in nature. While most of us can appreciate the beauty of a sunset, those with this supersensitivity can become overwhelmed by emotion when they see a sunset and will take it all in until the sun finally sets. When listening to music, it can be hard for them to sit still as they may feel the urge to move with the music. People with this overexcitability can make excellent musicians, dancers, artists, naturalists, and chefs.

The Downside of the Sensual Overexcitability

Children who have the sensual overexcitabilty can be picky eaters because they dislike the texture of some foods or they may intensely dislike their flavor or even their smell.

Mashed potatoes, for instance, may feel repulsive to kids with this supersensitivity as On the flip side, they may become overeaters because they get such intense pleasure out of the feel and taste of certain foods.

Sounds can be moving and soothing for kids with the sensual overexcitability. They can love to listen to a beautiful piece of music and the gentle sounds of nature. On the other hand, they can be overwhelmed by sounds and may need to retreat in order to escape the discomfort. In fact, they may feel extreme discomfort in surroundings where the senses are overwhelmed by sights, sounds, and smells that others would find exciting, such as going to a large county fair for the first time.

In school, it could be difficult for children to concentrate because noise in the classroom, smells from the cafeteria, and even the feel of tags on a shirt or seams on socks can be extremely distracting.

What You Can Do as a Parent

Understand the reasons your child does not want to eat certain foods. Don't force him to eat them since that could create a long-time problem with food. Instead, give your child some different options that he is more likely to eat. For instance, if your child can't tolerate the feel of mashed potatoes in his mouth, give him boiled potatoes.

Try to create an environment for your child to which he can retreat to escape from sensory overload. If your child has their own room, that's easier to do than if they have to share it with a sibling. It's also a good idea to have something soothing in the room like CD player with some soft nature sounds like rainfall or ocean waves. You might also encourage your child to take scented baths. Some bubble bath soaps have pleasant scents, but be sure it's one your child finds pleasant.

Because some kids with the sensual overexcitability get such pleasure from being in the limelight, provide some opportunities to experience that feeling. Community theater is one option for all but the littlest children. But familty productions will work too. As long as there is an audience, it should provide the physical feeling of appreciation that they enjoy.

You can also talk with your child's teacher about this sensitivity. If your child is overwhelmed in the classroom and is unable to concentrate, the teacher might be inclined to think the problem is ADHD. Try to work with the teacher to limit the noise and smells and even some of the visual stimulation your child experiences. For example, if your child is sitting next to the door and can smell the food from the cafeteria, ask that your child be moved away from the door.