What is Sensual Overexcitability?

Sensual overexcitability

Does your child hate the feel of labels on her clothes? Is he picky about what socks he’ll wear, or the texture of foods? Does she find certain noises excruciating?

If so, or if he’s more sensitive than most children to other types of sensory input, he might have sensual overexcitabilies.

Sensual overexcitability means you experience sounds, sights, touch, smell and/or tastes in a heightened way. You might intensely enjoy or even crave certain sensory experiences, while other forms of sensory stimulation make you feel stressed, angry or upset.

In this post I’ll share some examples of how sensual OE looks in my family. I’ll also consider whether or not it matters that we identify the underlying cause of the sensitivity.

1. Touch

People with sensual OE are often very sensitive to the feel of fabrics. They might spend ten minutes lining up their socks so that the seams don’t rub (and choose to go bare-footed as often as possible).

A woollen jumper can feel like a hair shirt. Women might need to wear a bra size too big in the back, because tight or constricting clothes are intolerable. My poor husband jokes that he only gets to see me dressed at weekends, but that’s not as exciting as it sounds – I’m always in my pyjamas (oh so comfy!) by the time he gets home from work at 7:00pm.

When it comes to temperature, layers are a sensitive person’s best friend. Right now I’m sitting on a train with my shoes off, pulling my cardigan on and off again as the train’s heating blasts out and a cold draft whips through the train whenever the doors open. Before I knew about sensual OE I would marvel at the willpower of people who could leave their coats buttoned up on in a hot, crowded underground train.  Now I know they just don’t experience temperature in the same way I do.

Other tactile experiences can feel really good. When he’s upset, my ten-year-old curls up with our dogs or cat, letting the feel of their soft fur instantly calm him. Some children with sensual OEs stay attached to their soft toys or blankets until long after their peers have outgrown them. Cuddles and hugs can feel heavenly.

Some kids with sensual OEs crave the feel of things in their mouths. My son has a drawerful of chewable toys, but I still find his desk littered with bits of half-chewed plastic (I’m usually glad that at least he’s not sucking on his T-shirt).  Chewing gum makes a visit to the hairdressers a whole lot more bearable.  I think the cupfuls of ice my kids munch through every day might also have something to do with their sensual OEs.

And you know those deep baskets in Starbucks, filled with bags of coffee nestled among springy shredded paper? No? I’d never noticed them either, until I set out to solve the mystery of the soggy piles of paper I kept finding in my washing machine. It turned out that while I was ordering my Americanos, Jasper had taken to filling his pockets with the springy stuff, ready to crinkle deliciously to his heart’s content. 😀

2. Sounds

I’m personally affected by this one to such a degree that I can’t imagine living in a world where the everyday sounds of modern life wash over you unnoticed.

When I’m trying to focus, I find noises at best distracting and at worst extremely stressful. My solution is to carry ear plugs, earphones and a white noise app wherever I go. Ahh the bliss of instant peace!

In restaurants I try to sit next to a wall so I can focus on my companions, protected from the cacophony of clanging crockery and other diners’ conversations.

On a more positive note, nothing begins my day better than standing at my bedroom window and listening to the birdsong for a few minutes. At concerts, I can experience an intense high as the energy of the music flows through my body.

People with this OE also commonly experience misophonia – an intense dislike of certain sounds (for example people eating, cutlery scraping on plates, or what my daughter describes as ’the sound of fingernails running down a school blazer’).

3. Sights

A person with sensual OEs might be intensely moved by a colourful sunset, a beautiful view or the sight of a raindrop glistening on a petal.

Sensually OE people can also be distracted or stressed by repetitive movements in their field of vision.

4. Tastes and smells

Kids with sensual OE can be sensitive to the tastes and textures of food, which can require their parents to be extremely resourceful when it comes to ensuring a balanced diet.

Smells often also trigger extreme reactions. My daughter, for instance, can’t step foot in a fast-food restaurant. I know of other children whose full-on flight or fight response kicks in when smells are too strong for them or who plead with their parents to “turn the smell off!”

The positive side of sensual OE is that pleasant tastes and aromas can be enjoyed intensely. My kids love theme parks, but when we spent two weeks in Disneyworld a few years ago Jasper’s holiday journal was filled with descriptions and pictures not of the rides, but of hot dogs and ice cream!

Sensual Overexcitability

Sensual overexcitability, sensory processing disorder, highly sensitive or autism?

All these sensitivities might be the only non-average aspect of a person’s make-up, or they might form part of a bigger picture. Do we need to know their underlying cause, or is it enough to manage the ‘symptoms’? In my experience it’s helpful to do both.

First of all, a child with sensory issues needs help learning strategies to manage his sensitivities. If I’m on a train and the person next to me starts noisily eating an apple, I can change seats or block out the noise with headphones. Kids have much less control over their environments. We don’t need to know the underlying cause of a child’s sensitivity to compassionately address their needs and start to teach them coping skills.

On the other hand, dealing with sensory sensitivity in isolation can lead to an inaccurate or incomplete diagnosis, which could obscure the bigger picture and delay the child receiving help with other issues they might be facing.

I remember the relief my husband and I felt when we were told that our seven-year old had sensory processing disorder. We thought the diagnosis meant our son would get the right sort of help. But we felt more lost than ever when, after a year of occupational therapy, there was no change in his behaviour.  It wasn’t until we finally looked at what was going on in the light of Jasper’s other overexcitabilities [intellectual, psychomotor and imaginational] that we were able to make sense of the whole picture and start to deal with all his needs.

In the UK especially, some children with sensory issues are incorrectly diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. These kids’ parents might know the label is an awkward fit, but in the absence of an alternative explanation they don’t know where to turn. My intention in creating this blog is to help share information about those other possibilities. I don’t claim to be an expert, but it’s no understatement to say that my life was transformed by the PowerWood OE workshop I went to last year – finally all the pieces of the puzzle came together and we were able to move forward.

If you suspect that you or someone in your family has overexcitabiliites, you can find out by taking this free online OE questionnaire.

Sensual OE – Further Resources


Jade Ann Rivera – How to identify and cope with overexcitabilities, part 5 of 5: Sensual overexcitability

PowerWood – Sensual OE

My Little Poppies – Sensory STUFF (Overexcitabilities, intensities, SPD, ADHD, anxiety, behaviour… call it what you will)


Living with Intensity, Daniels and Piechowski

* * *

How does sensual overexcitability look in your family? Perhaps you’ll share the example that will help another person solve the puzzle of what’s going on with herself or her child.

This is part 2 of my series on the five types of overexcitability.  After I’ve finished writing the series I’ll be sharing some of the strategies that have helped us as a family dealing with OEs. I hope you’ll join me on my journey.

Sensual overexcitability



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

30 thoughts on “What is Sensual Overexcitability?

  1. Hi Lucinda, such a helpful post- thank you! Looking at psychomotor and sensual OE’s, I think my kids have strains of both, but the sensual descriptions certainly feel more familiar: my daughter can’t get to sleep (this has a lot to do with overstimulation and an inability to switch off) unless she has her back or tummy stroked, and she has a huge collection of cuddly toys – the favourites worn & sucked to rag. My son also still has favourite ‘comforter’ cuddlies, and all hell breaks loose if one goes walkabout. He hates his school jumper; same material, manufacturer and design as the last one- but this one is different and ‘just not right.’ He hates moisturiser. She loves lip balm. They both have handholding preferences- he loves to hold hands, she doesn’t unless the grip is at the right angle and her coat cuff is not annoying her (which has led to interesting, lengthy ‘discussions’ at busy roads….). They both hate the cinema (too dark, too loud), have had issues at swimming pools where teenage lifeguards have turned up the music, and would (like me) prefer to live barefoot.
    I’m definitely going to follow up the other links you’ve provided- Thankyou so much.
    Personally, I have found that trying to understand what part of my kids’ environment is bothering them and why has led to a significant reduction in my own stress levels- sometimes because I can help change it so they are not as discomforted, sometimes because I can explain it to them when they can’t articulate or understand it, and sometimes because I’m just reassured that I know my kids, and it’s fine- they’re ok, they just feel differently to what I might expect- and that’s ok too.

    1. Hi Hannah, Your comment could be a whole post on this blog. You have such a talent for sharing your story along with your inspiring wisdom. You’ve provided so many more examples that I can relate to (and I’m sure others can, too). I am with your daughter in that hand-holding has to be at the right angle, and I’ve thrown away tops and lost more than one wrist-watch due to cuff issues. (I can imagine the road-crossing ‘discussions’! ;-))

      When we went indoor surfing on Cordie’s birthday I noticed Jasper with his hands over his ears while the kids were waiting for the training video to start. I had to sprint to the reception desk to beg them to turn down the music before Jasper melted down. Meanwhile my 5-year-old nephew was dancing like he was at a rave – he has OE as well but is more extroverted than Jasper and the music was clearly affecting him in a different way.?

      Your children are very lucky to have such an empathic mum.

      PS Sorry to take so long replying to your lovely comment, for some reason I haven’t been being notified of comments so I only just noticed them. Need to do some WordPress tweaking!

  2. This is so us (my family)!! We should compare notes, Lucinda. 🙂

    Tiger is your typical case of the child who can’t wear clothes where the fabric doesn’t “feel right” (too hard, too soft, too scratchy, too prickly, too much thread, too rough….etc). And yes, he spent his entire early childhood wearing sock inside out because he couldn’t bear to feel the seams. I also had to cut all the labels off his clothes.

    My husband has bat-like hearing where he can hear vibrations that most people can’t hear and that can only be detected by very sensitive sound-locating devices! Noises bother him a lot.

    I experience sights as sounds, sometimes. Disproportions get translated into screeching noises in my head! I had to walk out of The Centre Pompidou within a few minutes of entering because the modern abstract art displays inside (a few years ago) kept screaming in my head!

    Are we weird or what?! 🙂

    1. Oh, just to add to the list: for the longest time, Tiger’s food cannot touch one another because they are of different textures! Therefore, on his plate, rice is distinctly separated from meat, which is in turn separated from the veg, which is in turn separated from egg… Apparently, different textures must be kept separated!

      1. How interesting, Hwee. I’ve heard of children being particular about foods not to be touching eachother before, but had never thought about it in terms of the textures. I suppose if you’re very sensitive to the different textures it might be overwhelming to have them all mixed up. I am wondering how you manage with dishes like stir fry!

        Thank you so much for contributing to this discussion, Hwee. I’m really enjoying hearing of your experiences with OEs. 🙂

    2. Wonderfully weird, Hwee! 😀

      Your sights-as-sounds experiences is intriguing. Do you regard it as a form of synesthesia? I sometimes ‘see’ loud noises or vibrations which feels completely normal to me but my husband assures me isn’t! Isn’t it fantastic how we’re all different?!

      I also love the examples you’ve given of Tiger’s sensitivities, and of your husband’s super-hearing. I too am very aware of the connection between vibrations and sounds. Strangely I don’t think I have especially good hearing but perhaps the quality of one’s actual hearing equipment is separate from how one processes the sounds in the brain.

      Sorry for the delay replying to all your lovely comments, by the way. For some reason I haven’t been being notified of comments – new blog issues! I need to roll up my sleeves and do some tweaking under the bonnet of WordPress, I think. 🙂

        1. Thank you, Hwee! That’s a really fun award – and I’m honoured to be included in your list of nominees. 🙂 I hope you’re having a lovely weekend!

  3. Thank you for linking to me! These posts are thorough and insightful. I’m glad you wrote them and will be sharing them on my Facebook page as they come out. Tweet at me if you’d like me to share on Twitter as well!

    1. Thank you so much, Jade – I really appreciate your encouraging words and your generous offer to share my posts. I’ve enjoyed your blog for years and I’m looking forward to reading your new book. I’d love you to share on Twitter too, I just have to figure out how to tweet my posts first!

  4. It is so weird that there is a name for it. I have always said to mum that I experience the world differently to most other people. It was only when I began taking the medicine to stop the extra impulses in my brain at night, which in turn helps me to sleep that I realised I saw the world in psychedelic colours. The medicine helps to make the colours look more muted and calm. I never wear shoes, my sense of smell is off the spectrum, I hate noise of whatever level and I only wear natural fabrics. And I can’t bear crowds. I mean really can’t bear them. There is too much going on visually, aurally etc that I feel completely overwhelmed by it all. Asda has the same affect 🙂

    1. Claire, I know what you mean about Asda! 😀 Thank you for sharing all your wonderful examples. Isn’t it amazing how many people go around blithely thinking that we all live in the same world? Cordie cottoned on a few years ago when she shared with me a video she’d found called, “Is my red the same as your red?” (She’s been intrigued by the differences in our subjective experience of reality ever since and at the moment is talking about studying neurobiology at uni.) On the plus side, I expect it’s your acute sensitivity that allows you to appreciate those roses so deeply! Crowds exhaust me too. I have so much admiration for my husband who manages to commute to London every day. The children and I travelled by train to the National Theatre near Waterloo yesterday. I was wiped out for the rest of the day after that!

      You might like this metaphor that I saw on a TED talk recently (I posted it on the LaughLoveLearn Facebook page). Apparently people with ‘weak attentional filters’ are “able to think outside the box because their box is full of holes.”

      1. So, it’s not normal to be wiped out by a trip into London?? Thanks for your post and the whole blog! I’m just absorbing all this OE stuff and completing the jigsaw puzzle that is my family, with alot of help from Powerwood as well! <3

        1. So, it’s not normal to be wiped out by a trip into London??

          Well it’s our normal, Julie… Seems not to be average, though! Thanks for your lovely comment – I appreciated it very much. 🙂 I’m so happy to have found PowerWood, too!

  5. This is a very interesting post. I have actually never heard of this before. There is so much information in this post and I’m sure people who have/know someone with OE will find it a very useful resource.x #coolmumclub

    1. Thank you, Wendy. I think it might be a bit too long but it’s an area where I just had so many examples from our own experience!

  6. This is fascinating stuff. Particularly when I was pregnant I just could NOT tolerate anything loud. I remember irritability asking my mother and husband to stop shouting and they looked at me like I was crazy! I also hate crowds and get totally overwhelmed at the idea of hosting anything in my home. I’ve always been this way to a degree, and just put it down to ‘liking my quiet time’.

    I wonder how common this is, I’m definitely keen to learn more!

    I’m now determined to watch my daughter closely. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Kate, I ‘like my quiet time,’ too, and I much prefer visiting other people than hosting things at my house. (Even then I am rarely disappointed by cancelled plans!)

      Psychologists estimate about 20% of people have OEs, and about 2-4% have them to a degree that interferes with normal life such that they need help managing them. I probably wouldn’t have realised my daughter and I are part of the 20% if I didn’t have a son who’s in the smaller minority, but I’m so glad to have found out about OEs because it makes sense of so many things in my life!

  7. A really interesting and detailed post, that I am going to have to research more. My daughter is very sensitive to food, she is three years old and certain textures will make her gag and throw up so getting her to eat a balanced diet can be a challenging one. #coolmumclub

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Emma. Yes that does sound like a challenge. We have to draw on all our reserves and get quite creative when it comes to meeting these children’s needs, sometimes, don’t we?

  8. This is a really interesting post…I have never heard of sensory OE before. Some of the characteristics sound familiar to me, I wonder if I have a touch of it?! I’m sure there is a wide spectrum, like so many conditions.
    Thanks for sharing with #coolmumclub

  9. Hi Lucinda
    I really like your blog post, and wanted to add a list, too, but I am just now recovering from a full on day our of the house with the girls, where we have been to four different places, and met many different people, and taken part in many different activities. I am overstimulated, and just stealing a bit of quiet time behind the screen. Thank you for sharing :).

    1. Hi Tine, Thank you for visiting and for your encouragement!

      Your day sounds super-stimulating! Well done you for taking some quiet time to recover. 🙂

  10. Thank you for your posts about OEs, I think I have some reading ahead of me! I have a 5 year old boy who is struggling at school, and from a small amount of reading I am guessing that he has 4 of the 5 OEs (missing emotional, the descriptions I’ve read of the others seem like a perfect fit). I think we half knew what was going on, but knowing the right terms to search will help hugely in finding ways to help him.

    1. Sonya, Thank you so much for your comment. I always love hearing from other parents of children with OEs. Did you find the PowerWood OEs questionnaire? (Although if you do it, bear in mind that you might be dealing with OEs even if your son doesn’t score highly. My daughter was like that although it’s clear she has OEs as well as my son and I. The questionnaire was more accurate the second time she did it.)
      I hope now that you know about OEs that you feel better able to support your son. He’s lucky you’ve found out about this model when he’s so young. I wish I’d discovered it when my son was younger than 9! Do feel free to email me if you have any specific questions. (My email address is at the bottom of my About Me page.)

Leave a Reply