THEIR son was not autistic, he didn’t seem to have anything “wrong” with him, yet he didn’t seem to fit in at school or socially.
“Because our son couldn’t stand the noise of other people and the natural unpredictability of other children, we had to turn down every social invitation we received. Eventually, our friends stopped calling us.
“We struggled to sit at a restaurant and eat like any other family with small children, without having to take turns to carry and comfort a very anxious child, or use a public bathroom because the toilet flush and the hand dryers were very loud. We almost always had a screaming child who was so overwhelmed with emotion that the only thing he could do was have a meltdown.
“School was a nightmare for both our son and ourselves. There were tears every single day before he started school in Singapore at the age of almost four. The teachers before then were never supportive of the needs of our child and often labelled him as ‘difficult’. He always preferred to be left alone with his books since his nursery days when he was only 18 months old. He rejected circle time and group activities. It was suggested to us more than once that there might be ‘something wrong’ with our son, autism being on the list of possible ‘wrongs’ even though he didn’t display any of the symptoms,” explains Leila Boukarim, mother of two and author of All Too Much for Oliver.
The book is about a little boy named Oliver who is more sensitive than most children. He is quiet, empathetic, intuitive, and enjoys playing by himself in his own room more than anything else. Because Oliver is highly sensitive, he becomes easily overwhelmed with the world and can’t seem to enjoy the things most children do, such as the playground, birthday parties, and running through sprinklers.
Boukarim was inspired by her son, now six, to write the book. She wanted to write a story to give him the courage he needed to go out into the world and enjoy it. According to her, even when it was just words on a piece of paper, he loved the story and asked her to read it over and over to him. That’s when she realised it was worth turning the story into a book.
“Given that highly-sensitive children have struggles that not many people understand, many parents have found that it’s not always easy to find children’s books that are either appropriate, or that the child can relate to. Children often go to stories for inspiration, but when the protagonist is someone who is alone without his or her parents, ready for adventure, as is the case most of the time, how can someone who overthinks everything relate to this unrealistic concept? Granted, these wonderful books that are fun and colourful are great for most kids, but for 20% of our children, they lead to anxiety, tears, and questions that are much too deep for bedtime,” explains Boukarim, who is Lebanese and moved to Singapore three years ago.
She and her husband’s journey of discovery was long and tough. They struggled, not knowing what to look for and how to help their child.
Then one day, Boukarim discovered a book entitled The Highly Sensitive Child by psychologist Dr Elaine Aron. “Not only did I start getting to know my son better, but I started to learn about myself. Suddenly things started to make sense. I’d often seen my own perceived weaknesses in my son which upset me. We naturally want our kids to be better than us, and so, without really knowing what I was doing, I would try and change him. I stopped doing that when I learned why he acted and reacted the way he did, and why I did so as a child as well,” she says.
According to her, highly-sensitive people are genetically programmed to feel things more deeply and experience the world more intensely due to a highly tuned nervous system. This was the finding of a study by Stony Brook University in New York, published last year. Most importantly, high sensitivity is not a disorder and does not need to be treated.
As it is not a disorder, parents do not need to get a medical diagnosis. However, finding out more about it and even getting medical advice will help parents understand their child better and rule out any disorders and autism.
Although some of the behaviours displayed might be similar to those found in autistic children, the causes are very different.
Boukarim stresses that it is a serious problem not knowing why your child stands out of every crowd and not knowing why that is or what to do about it.
“When we found out our son was simply highly sensitive, not only did we get the peace of mind that we were desperate for, but we learned how to manage our expectations and how to speak to our child and deal with him in a way that made him feel supported, loved and understood. Knowing what he needed helped us figure out when to back off and let him do things at his own pace. When our attitudes, expectations and behaviour was changed appropriately, our son eventually began to metamorphose into a confident and independent little boy.
“Not knowing your child is highly sensitive and setting unreasonable expectations that obviously will not be met can be frustrating to parents and detrimental to a child’s self-esteem,” she adds.
While she does not believe in labels, Boukarim believes that understanding the challenges your child faces daily and the reasons for this is crucial to help them. For her, the label should serve to explain to those who play an important role in the child’s development (teachers, doctors, caregivers) what the child needs to flourish and why. “What the label should not do is segregate our kids from the crowds to which they belong,” she adds.
According to her, the term “highly sensitive” is not new, but it’s only just starting to make its way into the mainstream media. Today, there is more information on the Internet and in books. Last year, a documentary was created to raise awareness on Dr Elaine Aron’s work, propelling the “highly sensitive” movement forward.
“Despite all this, however, there is still much work to be done. In my opinion, the focus needs to be on schools to ensure highly-sensitive children are given what they need to thrive in the classroom, which historically is a setting best suited for the loud,” says Boukarim, who is a nutritionist by training.
“I would like to see people be more open-minded to differences in children and in the way they function. In the same way that people are different, children are also very different, and it should not be surprising that they don’t all do well in systems designed for the ‘cookie cutter child’.
“Questions like ‘Why is she like that?’ and ‘Why is he not playing with the others?’ are better left unasked. Most importantly, please do not offer parents of highly-sensitive children advice that sound like this: ‘You’re spoiling your child. You need to be tougher on her,’ as this can be more damaging than anything else. Please know we are doing our best, and that no one knows better than us what our children need.”
To parents of highly-sensitive children, Boukarim offers some comfort, “You are not alone.”
Dr Aron has a website at http://hsperson.com/.