Exceptional sensitivity to sounds, vibrations, smells, tastes, textures, touch, temperature, wind, barometric pressure & humidity, certain colours, bright light, fluorescent light, flicker, clutter, movement, crowds, stress or pain, can be a sign of illness, imbalance, stress or sensory processing disorder, or a natural innate sensibility.
Highly Sensitive Person
Elaine Aron calls naturally supersensitive individuals Highly Sensitive Persons. According to Aron, this is a perfectly normal trait that is inherited in 15 to 20% of the population. HSP seems to be extra common among autistic & neurodiversity spectrum people, but you can be a HSP and have extra well-developed senses without being autistic, and not everyone on the spectrum is highly sensitive.
Naturally, being able to consciously perceive more than most people and unable to filter incoming impressions can be both painful, frustrating and debilitating in many situations.
“I have always, in the past, enjoyed good smells, but I’m finding that my sense of smell is a growing problem as I age. I’m getting more and more sensitive with it, to the point that I almost can’t take any smells at all. I can detect smells that no one else can… and believe me, it isn’t fun!! Even the smells of my own husband and children are often unbearable to me.” – Cathy, adult Aspie from USA
“I am very sensitive to quick temperature changes. For me it is horrible to first have a shower in lipid water and then dry oneself in room temperature, I freeze to death before I get my clothes on. My facial skin doesn’t seem to have the same protection against cold that others have. When I go out in freeze temperatures I feel like I’d like a thick robber’s hood with just holes for the eyes. My skin is sensitive to heat too, I don’t feel well when it’s warm, over 20 degrees Celcius in the summer, and in the winter not under zero Celcius. Autumn and spring are my seasons, in other words.” – ‘Flinta’, female Aspie from Sweden
“Certain textures cause my gag reflex to kick in. When I was little I would vomit when I touched these certain textures. Wool is one of those things. I still cannot touch these textures without dry heaving.” – Bonnie D., adult Highly Sensitive Person from USA
“I can even get bothered by some people who to me drink too loud. You can actually hear some people drink, they make so much noise when they swallow and they give me the shivers…” – Alfonzo, adult Aspie from Belgium
“I am extremely choosy about what I wear, and only wear things that are comfortable. Nothing can be too tight, or too loose, and I can’t have any thick seems. I have to cut out all the tags out too. Sleeping isn’t easy, as every wrinkle must be flattened, or I will wake up with bruises. I also need multiple heavy blankets to be comfortable.
“Then there is the sense of smell. I am like a bloodhound… I smell everything, and way too strongly. I can find things you wouldn’t believe, just by ‘sniffing’ it out. Unfortunately I am also very sensitive here, and live with headaches, nausea, and dizziness, caused by the scents I encounter. I too wish purfume would be outlawed. Especially since the people who wear it seem to think bathing in it is required.
“Lastly there is light. It is not a good thing, yet neither is dark. I like dusk to be exact. I bit dark, but not quite yet. Bright lights just make my eyes close, involuntarily. I don’t like the sun, I get heat stroke easily (though I don’t burn at all) and the brightness makes me dizzy and lightheaded.”
“I have problems when there is a major change in Barometric Pressure too. In fact, I often end up with a migraine. I wake up in pain, with no warning, except that I knew a storm was coming. My knees often ache on those days too. I have always had joint problems in general, with my knees being the worst.” – Tracy, adult HSP from USA
“I am very prone to motion sickness. Air travel is a real horror for me because I almost always get airsick.” – William, adult Aspie from USA
It can also be highly enjoyable or useful in other situations. Or both.
“I was just thinking about sensory issues and how sometimes they can be uncomfortable, certain noises, smells that just smell too much and the dislike of certain tactile stimulus; but then I thought about some of the positive advantages too.
“For example, I have a heightened sense of hearing and can hear low level noises that nobody else seems to hear. On many occasions I have been able to detect and find problematic areas before others have been aware of them. For instance, electrical and mechanical products, sounding slightly different from how they usually sound, which can give me advance warning that they are about to break down, or experience difficulties. I can hear things that have been left on from the low level hum and seek them out and switch them off, to save battery power (if they are battery operated).
“Also a heightened sense of smell, which my son has too. We both detected a gas leak that no-one else seemed to smell. I thought I was going nuts when no-one else could smell it, but it was fortunate that my son and I did, as there did turn out to be a leak.” – Julie, adult Aspie from England
“Yes, I’ve had similar experiences… knowing by the sound of something that it isn’t right… hearing the toilet running downstairs when I’m upstairs… the sound the water makes when coming from the faucet gauges temperature (if I’m paying attention to it – which helps because I don’t feel the water temperature right away on my skin, there is a delay). It also comes in handy when I’m not in the room with the kids, knowing by the sound of something 2 rooms away or from upstairs that they are into trouble, lol.
“Smells also very similar to what you’ve said, even something as simple as knowing the meat or milk is turning long before others can smell it.
“I’m also very sensitive to pressure changes, so I can tell when the weather is changing – actually can feel a weather front or low pressure system pass over me (I’ve tested this with weather maps and it is always correct). When the low passes, my entire body feels like a weight has been lifted and I can move more freely, and the pressure in my head is released… it is very strange, like I can breathe freely again too. A hurricane down in the Caribbean can have me in terrible pain (I’m in New York, but deep low pressure can be felt that far away – imagine the pain I was in this summer when there were several hurricanes about at the same time!), and as it moved closer the pain worsens.
“I can also usually tell when a window or door is opened or closed (in a well insulated building) just by the air pressure changes on my eardrums. In a car it is very painful to close a window, and depending on who is with me I usually ask for them to warn me in advance if they will be closing a window.” – Wendi, adult Aspie from USA
Highly Sensitive People can be very creative, empathic, have extra good intuition and may also be good at picking up subtler impressions such as moods, vibes and inspiration.
“For me, the biggest advantage is how I can sense ‘vibes’ other people put out. I often know how others feel, before they say anything at all.”
“I find that [HSP/SID] has made me a more compassionate human being, as I hate pain and discomfort so much, I can’t bare to let anyone suffer anything I can help. With the fact that I can sense people’s feelings and emotions, due to this condition, I use it to do things for the people around me a lot. I like that I can do something most people I know cannot.” – Tracy, adult HSP from USA
Judging from their biographies, many of the world’s greatest artists, writers, poets, composers, inventors, philosophers and idealists seem to have been such supersensitive individuals. Like the inventor Nicola Tesla and author Marcel Proust just to mention two examples:
“The acute sensitivity which allowed Tesla to convert his mental constructs to hardware was not unaccompanied by a host of bothersome impressions, known to few other mortals. In a biographical sketch written in 1919, he described his violent aversions to women’s earrings and his obsessive fascination for crystals and plane surfaces, his revulsion at touching the hair of another person, the fever simply looking at a peach would arouse, and the nausea brought on by merely glancing at small squares of paper floating in a liquid.” – Christopher Bird & Oliver Nichelson in “Great Scientist, Forgotten Genius”
Besides being plagued by asthma and severe digestion problems, Marcel Proust had other sensitivities which made his life very difficult:
“The third problem is underpants. Proust needs to have these circling tight around the stomach before he has any chance of getting to sleep. They have to be fastened with a special pin.”
“Sensitive skin. He can’t use any soap, or cream, or cologne. He has to wash with finely woven moistened towels then pat himself dry with fresh linen. An average wash requires 20 towels, which Proust specifies must be taken to the only laundry that uses the right non-irritant powder. /../ He finds that older clothes are better for him than new ones, and develops deep attachment to old shoes and handkerchiefs.” – Alain de Botton in “How Proust can change your life“
The Highly Sensitive Person Elaine Aron info and short online test
Highly Sensitive People online info by Thomas Eldridge
Super Sensitive Person extensive sensitivity test
Dabrowski’s Over-excitabilities by Stephanie Tolan
Thank God for the iPod Sensory defensive in an over-stimulating society (blog)