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Part 2 - Sensory Intensity

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

Creating Safer Events and Spaces for Neurodivergent Dancers Series:

Part 2 - Sensory Intensity

Part 2 - Sensory Intensity

I was once playfully teasing a dancer about their inability to stay still long enough to micro. (Micro is very tiny dancing usually done in close embrace.) They replied to me, “I can’t micro for more than ten seconds. I always have to be off-center.”

The casual use of the words “I can’t” and “have to” reflects the feeling that they are compelled to seek the self-soothing behavior of being off-center to generate enough sensory stimulation, given their hypo-responsive vestibular system. Being in an off-balance physical state probably helps this dancer’s nervous system to calm because it receives the right amount of input to process where their body and head are in space. With this knowledge, I tend to seek out and compliment off-balance moves with this dancer. We have great dances together because both of our physiological needs are met in our dances.

Sensory processing differences are often clinically described using the intensity of the response: hyper-responsive or hypo-responsive. Hyper-responsive means that one has a heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli where stimulus is felt more intensely and/or is rapidly processed. Hypo-responsive means that one has less sensitivity and has under- or non-responsive reactions where sensory input is dampened. Hyper- or hypo- responsiveness can occur in any combination across all eight senses.

Because this clinical language isn’t in common use, many neurodivergent folks will use alternative language to communicate their sensory needs and identities, such as: I’m a highly sensitive person, my super power is…, I’m over-excitable, I’m intense, I’m picky, I’m delicate, I’m autistic. They use these terms, not as excuses but as shortcuts to communicate their strengths, needs, and supports. To best understand and support neurodivergent people it is vitally important to respect how they chose to identify in this manner, while also understanding that no matter what terms they use, their sensory strengths, needs, and supports are valid with underlying biological reasons.

Many neurodivergent people and some neurotypical people have hyper- and hypo- responsiveness in different senses. One study stated that “Hypo and/or hyper responsiveness to sensory stimulation is estimated to occur in 5–16% of children within the general population, and 40–80% of children with neurodevelopmental disorders.” (This study is available online here.) These percentages can be generalized to adults as well because sensory processing differences are typically part of one’s neurological wiring and would not be expected to disappear with the passage of time.

Differences in sensory processing can occur on a spectrum from non-responsive, to a measured in-kind response, to a self-protective fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response. A person who is non-responsive or slow to respond to sensory information may either not register that information or may be delayed in processing and responding to it. A hypo-sensitivity may drive a person to seek out experiences with higher intensity because their neurological system needs more sensory stimulation to register and process the sensory information.

For example, someone who is highly responsive to proprioception might enjoy extremely tight hugs or squeezes. Someone not responding to your question or comment or taking what feels like a long time to reply to your question may have delayed audio processing. A person not responding to your touch, being able to spin for a very long time without getting dizzy, or nauseous (vestibular sense), or bumping into furniture (proprioceptive sense) may have low responsiveness in that sense.

People experiencing hyper-sensitivity may generally avoid certain sensory experiences because they are too intense. Examples include covering one’s ears in an echoing soundscape or with specifically triggering sounds, avoiding crowded spaces where one might be unexpectedly touched, or being unable to tolerate certain foods or scents.

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