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Gifted adults are sensitive to light, sound, texture, and medication

Gifted adults are often surprised to learn that it is normal for them to be highly sensitive to sounds, texture, the visual environment, and medications, and that they share these characteristics with other gifted adults. They frequently say they never suspected that these sensitivities are typical for gifted adults.

When I ask my gifted clients if they have any of these sensitivities, a resounding number of will say, “Yes. That describes me.” I have learned to ask my clients about these sensitivities because their affirmative responses can help them to better accept and to internalize the knowledge that they are gifted.

The term multiple sensitivities refers to this group of common characteristics. It means that the senses of gifted adults are more acute than the senses of the average person. Said another way, the way that gifted adults perceive their environment is more sensitive than the way the average person does.

Sound: One area where I often hear the reaction, “Yes, that’s me,” is when I ask a gifted adult whether their hearing is “super sensitive.” This question can elicit several different responses, all of which are normal for this group. A common response from those that have had their hearing tested by an audiologist is that they are able to hear frequencies above and below the normal range, and have been like this all their lives.

Another response I hear is that gifted adults find loud noise, or even background noise, disturbing while an average person would not complain or even find the level of noise noteworthy. A gifted adult may be unable to listen to popular songs on the radio because they find them grating. Or they may have trouble sleeping if a television is playing in another room in the house.

(Details in the stories that follow have been changed to protect privacy.)

Sarah often had difficulty concentrating at work because of her sensitivity to sound. When a conversation broke out in the cubicle beside hers, she would have to get up and move. She couldn’t concentrate if someone was talking on the phone beside her and was relieved when she was given an office because it meant she would be able to focus for longer periods without being interrupted.

Texture: Another area when I elicit the response, “Yes, that’s me,” is when I ask a gifted adult whether they are sensitive to the texture of their clothes. I will ask, for example, whether they have to cut the tags out of their t-shirts and sweaters before they can wear them, sharing that this behaviour is common, especially among gifted children. Gifted adults will often laugh and say, “That was me… I still cut the tags out.”

Similarly, gifted adults will often share that they buy their clothes based on how the clothes feel on their bodies as much as on how they look. Gifted adults frequently share they can’t wear pure wool sweaters because they feel too scratchy, or that they prefer to wear fleece because it feels better. They may even share that they have to sleep in cotton night clothes because otherwise they are uncomfortable.

Samuel is very particular about his clothes. He says that the comfort of his clothes feel on his body is as important to him than how they fit. He says he started buying his clothes 100% based on feel about ten years ago and hasn’t looked back. 

Visual: Gifted adults are often unable to tolerate messiness because the visual chaos of clutter makes them uneasy. They may be teased for how neat they are and how they need everything to be in its proper place. They may be called meticulous or pedantic, but this level of organization may be what they need to be able to relax. If their environment isn’t organized, they may find it hard to remain in the space because visual chaos causes stress.

Gifted adults usually keep their homes and offices highly organized. Others may not be aware of the level of organization because gifted adults won’t necessarily have the dishes done in their kitchens. But one look at the gifted adult’s computer or their filing system and the level of organization, where it counts for gifted adults, becomes evident.

Crystal was a gifted adult and the mother of four children, all under six years of age. Before she went to bed each night, she insisted on tidying up all the toys and getting dirty dishes out of the sink. This drove her husband nuts because it meant sometimes that she didn’t get to bed until late. However, experience had taught Crystal that she couldn’t sleep unless all the children’s toys were picked up and there were no messes for her to wake up to the next morning.

Medication: This is another category that frequently elicits reactions of surprise from my gifted clients when they discover that it is common among the gifted. These clients will often shake their heads in surprise and share, “Yes, that describes me,” when I ask whether they require lower doses of medication than the average person. For example, they may need only a low dose of medication to relieve a headache.

Adrienne went in for her first colonoscopy when she was 46. She told me she was knocked out within 15 seconds after the anaesthesiologist hooked her up to the I.V. She said her physician had told her she would be able to watch the procedure on the television monitor if she wanted to. She said she never experienced that option, however, because she was down for the count as soon as the pain medication she was given hit her blood stream.

When viewed collectively, the heightened sensitivities that gifted adults share illustrate that they are different in yet another way from the norm based on their perceptions of sensory stimuli. Others, not knowing that these sensitivities are indicative of giftedness, may be inclined to pathologize the gifted for these traits, stating that gifted adults are too sensitive and need to get over being so high strung.

Their heightened sensitivities indicate that gifted adults are constantly threatened with being overwhelmed by their senses when too many sounds, textures, and visual stimuli surround them.

Gifted adults, not surprisingly, are also highly sensitive to smells, colours, and the expressed emotions of others.

Gifted clients tell me, that once we have discussed their heightened sensitivities, that they are better able to understand their own reactions to the world around them. Frequently this means that they are better able to give themselves what they may need when they are feeling overwhelmed. For example, they may give themselves permission sooner to remove themselves from challenging environments when the noise becomes too loud, or to take downtime in a calm location when their senses are being over-taxed in other ways.

Multiple sensitivities is just one of many common characteristics that gifted individuals share and knowing about their heightened sensitivities can be comforting to gifted adults that want to better understand themselves or someone they care about.

Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta 

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