Overexcitabilities to gifted and twice exceptional people are like wind to a kite. They allow us to fly high but can also cause us to perilously fall toward earth, often in a dizzying and uncontrollable descent. Overexcitabilities are those intensities that come forth in the intellectual, emotional, imaginational, sensual (sensory) and psychomotor domains as identified and explored by psychologist Kasmierz Dabrowski (Dabrowski & Piechowski, 1977). People who are overexcitable respond to stimuli in a much grander fashion than the “typical” person. The gifted community uses Dabrowski’s theories to understand heightened responses experienced by gifted and 2e people. In my opinion, a serious misunderstanding of these responses and the failure to honor overexcitablities contributes largely to the high instance of existential depression in the gifted and 2e communities.
Behavior is communication. However, when behavior is a reaction to an invisible source – intensities or overexcitabilities – the conduct does not indicate what is truly behind the response. An understanding of these sensitivities, the willingness to look beyond the obvious, will give the gifted or 2e person the support she needs to succeed in the face of challenge. Lack of understanding, or misunderstanding overexcitabilities, however, is detrimental to the person needing to regulate their response, and negatively impacts their self-esteem.
Intellectual Overexcitability Unlike crying from a scraped knee, for example, tears do not obviously indicate that a child is experiencing frustration from the inability to pursue a passionate intellectual interest. An intellectually overexcitable person experiences insatiable curiosity. He or she asks many questions often wanting to know “the why behind the why.”
In school or at work the intellectually overexcitable person may get stuck on something they find fascinating only to look up and notice the day went by as they chased their thoughts down a rabbit hole. The voracious need for information and to understand the world around them is not something an intellectually overexcitable person can modulate. It is inherently who they are. In a classroom, this child is often told “you asked enough questions, we need to give someone else a chance.” They’re made to feel as though their fascination is secondary, “I can see you find this part interesting but we need to move on with my lesson plan.”
What could or should happen in these situations? Either the child can go to the library and research her interest and report back to the classroom – we know she will catch up with the lesson plan when she gets back – or a prophylactic strategy is in place. The teacher and student together create a special “questions notebook” and have a standing date once a day or once a week to go over those burning questions.
Sensual (Sensory) Overexcitability Shut down or withdrawal don’t clearly communicate severe challenges with transitions from, for example, a quiet classroom to a loud gymnasium or from a darkened cinema to bright lights. Seams in socks, tags in shirts, transitions involving sensory changes – they all are challenging for sensory overexcitable people. Acute sensitivity to sound, food textures and odors are often present. Or they may find great pleasure in, say, petting a soft animal, classical music or nature. They are profoundly affected by their senses, either in a positive or in a jarring way. Without an understanding of this sensitivity the child is repeatedly put in a literally painful situation.
Psychomotor Overexcitability Loquaciousness does not overtly tell a teacher or parent that a child needs more activity. The engines of psychomotor overexcitable people run on one speed and one speed only – supersonic. They move for movement’s sake. They have a need to move and they need to move to attend. They probably need less sleep than a typical person their age, they can talk a blue streak and they are thrill seekers. So, the kid who can’t stand still in line, or sit quietly waiting for directions in gym class, really can’t stay still. The anticipation of movement and the need for movement are overpowering. Unfortunately, sometimes the result for not following the “stay still “rule is to take away recess or P.E. time – just exactly the opposite of what this child needs.
Imaginational Overexcitability Risk avoidance does not automatically indicate a vivid imagination or anxiety from observing global concerns. Vivid dreams, imaginary friends, getting lost in thought, building complex structures, creative writing – these are hallmarks of imaginational overexcitability. In a classroom, a student may look as though she cannot focus – but truthfully she is focusing on the rich interior of her own mind. She may talk to herself when she is playing in her made up world. She can be uproariously funny and often enjoys clever puns. She may resist playdates with others because seldom does she enjoy other children as much as her own fantasy play. Bad dreams are very real and far-reaching – they are not an excuse to stay up later or a ruse for more time with Mom or Dad.
Emotional Overexcitability Refusal to participate in competitive activities does not automatically inform others of a heightened sense of right and wrong or extreme empathy. Having an emotionally overexcitable friend can be amazing. Their vast spectrum of feelings offers undying loyalty, deducing your needs before you can express them, showering you with attention and love. It can also be overwhelming – so much attention, and the guilt of not returning the exultations. For the emotionally overexcitable person there is frustration. They are frequently misunderstood. Their ovations are not usually reciprocated and their energy and investment are sometimes taken for granted. These people have a strong sense of right and wrong and are often challenged by injustices. They contemplate existential questions from a much earlier age then their emotional development. If left alone with their fears, emotionally overexcitable people perseverate or have to find a way to emotionally disconnect on their own.
Overexcitabilities are inherent to the person experiencing them. They are organically how a gifted or 2e person relates to the world, to other people, to animals, art, music, food, tastes, textures, to their own inner pulse and individual pace in a deep and meaningful way. For sure gifted and 2e children need help dialing down their painful, challenging intensities – they need understanding and modifications. If beauty is found in this ability to connect and observe the world, if gifted and 2e people are understood and supported in their heightened, and sometimes painful sensitivities, then their ability to make meaningful connections will soar.
We know gifted and 2e people experience the world with a wider and deeper filter and that they do not have control over these intrinsic feelings. Therefore, when intensities are misunderstood or worse – disciplined – the clear message is that there is something wrong with the innate self, the true self, the hard-wired self. It is imperative for parents, teachers, professionals, as well as gifted and 2e adults, to honor overexcitabilities. They must figure out a way that the person experiencing intensity at the time can do so in a safe environment with understanding, compassion and appreciation. When this happens, their kites can soar high up in the sky.