Somewhere on the internet this week there was a discussion on this subject that I briefly read and lost. The author stated that perhaps Dabrowski’s Overexcitabilities weren’t a thing after all, but simply undiagnosed medical issues. I went “hmmm” and promptly forgot to look it up. I have now, and I’m coming back to you with the details.
First though, I should define overexcitabilities, or as Heather over at The Fringy Bit calls them, intensities . What are they? There are 5: psychomotor, sensual, emotional, intellectual, and imaginative.
In a nutshell, overexcitabilities are intense. Intense emotion, intense senses, intense curiosity, and so on. Gifted individuals are more likely to be intense in these 5 recognizable categories than the average person, although non-gifted individuals can exhibit intensities too.
If you’re interested in learning more detail about overexcitabilities, Colleen at LifeLongLearners has a great article about OEs. Sharon Lind over at SENG wrote a wonderful, informative list defining the different OEs. And if you’re wondering what kind of overexcitabilities you or your child might have, check out the OE Questionnaire over at PowerWood.
Are they real? That’s actually a simple answer because OEs have been studied a lot. According to Linda Silverman,
“Numerous studies have explored the relationship between giftedness and OEs. All show that the OEs differentiate between gifted and nongifted in a variety of ways.”
Linda Silverman, “The Truth About Overexcitabilities”
If you’re interested in reading those studies, click the link to read the full article and see the cited references.
So yes, they’re real. They’re very real. But the problem is that people tend to focus on the negative aspects of OEs and they may ignore true medical issues that have similar symptoms. It’s not mutually exclusive – it’s possible to have OEs and other medical diagnosis like depression, anxiety, Sensory Processing Disorder, and so on.
That means trouble in two very different ways. People who are experienced with gifted issues may write true medical issues off as “just giftedness,” while medical professionals not experienced with giftedness may misdiagnose someone because the symptoms are so similar. I tend to think of OEs as a Gordian knot – and I long for the simple solution to cut through all the mess and tangle.
In our own family, it’s often difficult to distinguish between sensual OEs and Sensory Processing Disorder. After living with it for over 3 years now, I think I can safely say that the difference is about how life-altering it is. I have hypersensitive smell, and I’m hypersensitive to sunlight: that’s OEs. On the flip side, the Engineer was so hypersensitive to sound that at age 3, he would run crying out of the public restrooms when someone flushed a toilet or started a hand dryer. That’s SPD.
I can’t stand eating slimy foods like okra. I refuse – they’re disgusting and they make me gag. But only certain foods. For kids with severe SPD, they may only eat 5 different foods total due to their sensory issues. I am hypersensitive, they are far beyond that.
In another example, the Engineer has been diagnosed with ADHD. I don’t personally believe he has it, and his specialist is slowly starting to come around to my viewpoint. If he truly had ADHD he would struggle in all aspects of his life including home, school, and public settings. Instead, he does fairly well at home, loses it completely if he’s bored, and he can sit calmly and listen if he’s really interested in what’s being said. It’s uneven. It’s sporadic. It’s frustrating!
As Silverman puts it, “It is essential to rule out any other possible causes of problematic behavior, rather than just attributing it to OEs.” Don’t just write it off as a simple gifted issue, make sure that you’ve covered everything else first. Try to make sure that any medical evaluations are done by someone familiar with giftedness to lower the risk of misdiagnosis. And if the overexcitabilities are truly life-altering, don’t give up until you find answers.
I understand the struggles my kids endure, even if I cannot fully grasp what they deal with. And even though I understand, I refuse to allow them to use OEs as an excuse. They can learn to cope like we did. They can mature and grow like we did. OEs are not an excuse for poor behavior, they are just one more factor that complicates parenting.