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Processing Disorders: The Understimulated Brain

Updated on February 26, 2014

Overwhelmed or Underwhelmed?

The book is called Fidget to Focus. I found it on the lending/ trading bookcase at my apartment building. I am not sure if it will alter the course of my life, but it has sure altered the course of my internet research over the past few days. One interesting term the authors use: underwhelmed. They note that much attention has been given, in recent years, to the overwhelmed neural system, to the phenomenon of experiencing the world -- sensory stimuli in particular -- as too intense. One reason for this faulty sensory processing may be over-connection in some areas of the brain; scientists have indeed been quite surprised to discover over-connection in the brains of people labeled autistic.But just as it's possible to have a chronically overwhelmed neural system, it's possible to have an underwhelmed one. This, too, can be caused by faulty processing. The authors of Fidget to Focus are among those who believe that a person needs an optimal level of stimuli to function normally (hence the name of the book).

I want to say right now that I believe that DSM labels are limited. Some of find that we are partially described by a number of labels, but not well described by any. For some reason (in many cases genetic) there's something unusual about our brain structure; however, the science that could accurately describe that something... well it's still in its infancy. Doctors give diagnoses based on behavior descriptors, and patients go through multiple treatments, multiple medications, and often multiple labels. I've been aware since college that there were some ADHD-associated behaviors and feelings that I strongly identified with, even though I don't have ADHD. I've become aware more recently that the way I respond to caffeine (experiencing a soothing effect) is more characteristic of ADHD than it is of any label I've ever worn.

One day soon I'm going to have the resources and courage to pursue genetic testing. For now, I continue to use the internet in my quest for answers. Come along with me, if you will, on my latest journey...

The Under-Responsive Neural System

Two Types... At Least

I came across these two lines in a fact sheet titled Regulation Disorder of Sensory Processing: "These children require high-intensity sensory input before they are able to respond. They are quiet and watchful at times and may appear withdrawn and difficult to engage." I don't identify with everything about "Hyposensitive/ Under-responsive Processing Disorder" (one of three main types of spd) but those two lines... Wow! If you substitute "young woman" for "child", I bet those lines would set a light bulb off in the minds of quite a few of my former housemates from housing co-op days. I was known for huddling on couches, often blending into furniture, only to rise up suddenly.

I lived five years in a dorm, and seven years in housing co-ops. At the sixteen bedroom I lived in for five years, I displayed a preference for falling asleep on the couch amidst chaos and confusion. These words, from Fidget to Focus, struck me as humorous: "One mother reports that her daughter, who occasionally declared herself too bored to sleep, experimented with different sleeping venues: the floor, the couch, and once even the bathtub."

I have had a frustrated awareness, since girlhood, that many people pegged me as an overwhelmed type, a person who needed someone to reach out a hand and say, "Ssh, I'll be your guide, I'll help you navigate these rough waters." How do you explain to others, without having the vocabulary, that what looks like overwhelment is underwhelment, that there are a lot of things you can't respond to until they reach a certain intensity threshold... and that that intensity threshold, in some areas of functioning, might be beyond what they can fathom? How do you expect people to believe when you yourself don't even know that the condition exists? (It's one thing to experience something; it's quite another to be confident enough of its existence to try to convince others.)

So... there are at least two distinctly different behavior patterns manifested by people with hyposensitive neural systems. Some are overt and obvious stimulus seekers; others huddle, almost unable to respond until the intensity level reaches a certain threshold.

Book: Fidget to Focus

This book gave me some new vocabulary and set my journey of discovery down a new path. Designed for people with ADHD, it gives insight into why one might need to fidget... as well as suggestions for doing so in ways that others won't find disrespectful. It also gives some organization advice for those with ADHD (organization skills being a frequent issue).

The Under-Stimulated Brain: Mixed Type

In real life of course, people don't fall neatly into one category or the other. They may display a mixture of behaviors across categories. I definitely have my fidgets... I worked for several years at a charter school in Arizona. I was on warm terms with the assistant director, who sometimes dropped me off at my bus stop after we were done for the day. We'd talk. It was right before I moved to Washington -- when the professional boundaries were dissolving -- that we had a articular deep conversation. I confessed to having worn some labels in my time. She responded that she'd never noticed anything odd... except at staff meetings. I asked her to elaborate. She said, "I wanted to staple you to your chair."

Tagging: A Metaphor For...

Monotropism? SPD? Phobias? All of the Above? Me?

I belong to a lesser known social bookmarking site -- and from the experience of bookmarking and tagging, I draw a metaphor:

I tag websites with keywords and -- metaphorically -- I tag real-life stimuli as well. A particuar stimuli is tagged 'fear', and it is always fear; a particular person is tagged 'love' and they are always love.

The funny thing is, I actually have trouble responding emotionally to stimuli that haven't been 'tagged'. Here's something I've puzzled over at various times: I will sometimes order an item at a restaurant or juice bar that ends up turning my stomach. I think I do it because I don't recognize, or experience, body signals well. I can tell you what my favorite foods are, but if you ask me what my stomach or taste buds crave at a particuar moment in time, you'll be met with bafflement. Salty? Sweet? I don't know, and I'm not sure I know how to know.

Some people say that emotions are largely physiological responses to stimuli. Well, this is just a theory, but it does so seem to fit: Deficient in normal body signals, deficient in the very mechanics of attraction and repulsion, emotion for me consists largely of conditioned responses to a limited number of stimuli. (I just want my favorite. I just want whatever it is I've tagged as 'favorite'.)

Resources for Those With Processing Disorders

Note: Items on this list apply to various types of sensory processing difficulty.

Thoughts to Share?

Time to Process

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    • viscri8 profile image


      8 years ago

      Blessed by an over responsive Angel that is trying to survive by under responding.or find some other forms of survival. Keep up the good work..

    • LotusMalas profile image


      10 years ago

      I've definitely known both! Great summary of the book and the types

    • KarenTBTEN profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago

      @eclecticeducati1: Thank you, my goal was for people to see this. It's interesting the combination of labels your sons wear. I remember when I was in the College of Education, I identified enough with the description of ADHD that I asked an instructor if there was a relationship between ADHD and OCD. She said no, they were opposites. I don't have either OCD or ADHD in the classic form, but I do have some traits associated with each. People don't always fit neatly into labels, but when they acquire more than one, I think there is often a common underlying cause.

    • eclecticeducati1 profile image


      10 years ago

      This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I have one son that has ADHD/ OCD/ ODD and possibly SPD and another son that has ADHD/ OCD and SPD. I am constantly trying to learn more. Blessed by an Angel.


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