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Quiet children with High Sensitivity: helping them by exploring ideas in depth

Date posted: Thursday 13th December 2012

“The Indians send signals from the rocks above the pass”. That first line of a song may mean nothing to you, but if you can recite the next line then you will know it is from ‘Cool for Cats’ by Squeeze. You may even know that the writer was Glenn Tilbrook, who is still being successful almost 30 years on.

What has that got to do with helping quiet children? Please bear with me… I heard Glenn on the radio, talking about his early life and influences, as I was driving down to meet Barbara Allen-Williams, founder of the National Centre for High Sensitivity.

Children and adults who are Highly Sensitive can be described as experiencing the world through their senses in a way that is more highly acute than other people. While in some circumstances this can be an advantage, in others- and particularly in school- it can be a big problem. Schools are noisy places that are designed to be highly stimulating. Children with High Sensitivity often become quickly overloaded with sensations, and can respond by becoming overactive or very quiet.

With Barbara’s help, I was able to explore the possibility that some children might be very quiet in school -to the point that they have become silent- because they have High Sensitivity. Their silence in school may be a response to a heightened sensitivity to sound, smell, touch and taste. Barbara explained that many children with High Sensitivity find relief by being in their own company. They may also like to explore ideas and interests in a lot more depth than most children.

Which brings me to Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze. When he was a child he had a great interest in music. As a teenager he was fascinated by vinyl records: not just the sounds that came from them, but their feel and even their smell. I’m not saying that he has High Sensitivity, but he certainly was highly involved in vinyl, and eventually was able to use his passion for music and pop to become a successful songwriter and performer. He also described how his young son responds very enthusiastically to music, and how music is likely to be a huge passion for him.

Now I am not saying that silent children with High Sensitivity are all budding prodigies. What I am suggesting is that if we are working with very quiet children who have particular interests, then we should help them to explore these interests. This can be especially useful if we can find other children with similar passions (and passion is the right word!). We can also help them to express themselves by encouraging them to share their ideas creatively.

This is where we introduce TED. That stands for ‘Technology, Entertainment, Design’ (but has also been described as ‘Think, Exchange, Debate’). These are a series of talks, available free online from innovators in a given field (otherwise known as ‘Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world’).

Children in Year 5 at Soho Parish Primary School, Westminster have been encouraged to share their passions by creating their own ‘TED talks’. These have been many and varied, including Lego, Why boys should be involved in ballet, skateboarding, Stephen Fry, and my favourite…. Mr Bean. The project, known as Small Talks, was developed by their class teacher, Laura Kirsop and Clare Sutcliffe of Code Club. Code Club is an after-school scheme that introduces children to the pleasures of programming, making it possible for children to design presentations that bring their big interests to a wider audience. While the mere thought of giving a presentation to a group would be a huge challenge for a very quiet child, I can see the potential that Small Talks could have if used by a group of children with the same interests, helping them to find out what each has in common, and working collaboratively.

So the next time you hear the immortal lines ‘The Sweeney’s doing ninety/’Cos they’ve got the word to go’ reflect on the value of having a deep interest, and the benefits this can have for all children, and how we can support the quieter ones to find their voice in school.

To find out more about the National Centre for High Sensitivity visit Growing Unlimited

For information about Small Talks visit Small Talks and Small Talks gives kids the chance to make their own TED-style lectures on Wired

For an in-depth description of High Sensitivity, read two excellent books by Elaine N Aron
The Highly Sensitive Child and The Highly Sensitive Person. Both are published by Thorsons.

Click here for an article on High Sensitivity and selective mutism.

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8 responses to “Quiet children with High Sensitivity: helping them by exploring ideas in depth”

  1. Tina Warnock says:

    Hi Michael,
    It’s interesting that some of the behaviours of highly sensitive children could be compared to that of mildly autistic children, who also often have heightened senses – do you have any comments or insights about that?

    • Michael Jones says:

      I would say most definitely that children with High Sensitivity are not autistic. However many children with autism do have these heightened sensitivities as well. The strategies for helping children with High Sensitivity would certainly be helpful for children with autism (and possibly vice versa).

    • This question about any relationship between highly sensitive children and autism comes up a lot and I often address it when training professionals. There are some key points which can help to clarify this question: one is that the nervous system of a HSC is highly organised, it is not a disorder – whereas autism is a disorder needing treatment or care to limit the disabling effects, particularly in social settings and essential relationships. Secondly, and related to this, HSCs are extremely good at picking up on social cues, reading faces, sensing atmospheres and responding to them. Their emotional intelligence is innately high, unless its development is stunted by unhelpful exoeriences or expectations. Children with autism often struggle a great deal with social cues and relating to emotion, even those with mild autism. Their ability to stand in anothers shoes or imagine, is difficult. Thirdly, the blood flow to the brain of HSCs tends to be more to the right brain, they are good at being creative in a variety of ways and in extrapolating and making links and creative leaps. Sadly, an overwhelmed or overstimulated HSC can sometimes appear autistic since they may withdraw or fail to respond while they wait for things to feel safe and comfortable. This can happen even if the child is an extravert, since they can be overstimulated and also need reflective space just like introverted HSCs.

  2. Clare Schmieder says:

    I’m very glad to see the development of understanding of HSP in Early Years discussions. It’s a good use of your high profile and status Michael. Well done!

  3. Elly Foster says:

    Hi Michael, This is such an interesting topic to me. Over the years I have supported many children who fall into the ‘autistic’ bracket. I wonder if you know how the people diagnosing children tell autism apart from HSP? Are children being misdiagnosed? Look forward to your next blog. Elly

    • Michael Jones says:

      HI Elly
      I know that there is a huge discussion about ‘Who is autistic and who isn’t? What does ‘mild autism’ look like? What is the interface between autism and other conditions?’
      From my point of view (and I suspect yours ) we need to get on with finding out what works for individual children and teenagers. However from the parents’ and schools’ points of view it is essential to get the right ‘label’. This helps parents’ and children’s emotional development, and hopefully will lead to appropriate resourcing.
      There is a great DVD from Jessica Kingsley Publishers called ‘Autism and me’ by a young man called Rory Hoy. He has a diagnosis of autism, and he made a film about himself. I interviewed him for Special Children magazine, and visited the school where he worked in the media department, and found out about his success as a DJ. It was fascinating and very inspiring.

  4. Hi all.

    A very interesting topic Michael – it’s good it’s being discussed! 🙂 If I may add my thoughts?

    I agree, it’s important to find solutions for the individual, however I think the links between ASD and HS need to be considered to help create awareness – whether they are genuine links or misdiagnosis.

    I often work with children who have a diagnosis of ASD or Asperger’s Syndrome and present as being able to pick up on some very subtle cues and non-verbal communication.

    Often staff quite rightly approach social interaction issues by teaching the young person about feelings. In reality the child has already understood and processed the emotion of the other person but may not have the ability to manage or communicate their own reaction to this information. Their behaviour sometimes presents as rude or uncaring but this, I believe, can be a self preservation technique to hide the frustration and anger at themselves. eg if they sense someone is disappointed in their work or they have not achieved an unrealistic target that they have set themselves.

    The reason I think it’s important to raise awareness is that the diagnosis of ASD may cause confusion in the analysis of need and appropriate support and being aware that there could be complex issues involved will encourage us to look at the person in front of us rather than rely on a textbook response. Amy

    • Michael Jones says:

      Yes Amy,
      I think there is a complex relationship between sensitivity and youngsters’ responses, and this gets polarised in secondary school. I am often contacted by parents of teenagers with a diagnosis of autism and selective mutism. I wonder if their ‘selective mutism’ is in fact a very understandable response to not understanding language and communication, and/or being unable to make themselves understood quickly enough. This may lead to reactions of panic anmd ‘lock down’ which are then interpreted by the adults as ‘selective mutism’.

      The teenagers would not have this reaction at home with their close family, because they have grown up with them and everyone has an intuitive understanding about how to communicate with each other. Also topics of conversation tend to be quite predictable and about everyday life, so communication can be quite ‘safe’. Also if you screw up on making yourself understood at home, it is a lot less problematic than if this happens in school.
      Any thoughts?

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