By Dana Vilker
People like to diagnose us. As atypicals, we often accumulate an impressive list of letters that categorize and label us: ASD, ADHD, PTSD, BPD, SPD… you name it. We seldom have only one. The more curious comorbid conditions are the ones that aren’t strictly neurological or psychiatric. Some of us have hypermobile joints or skin conditions, which sometime accompany neurodivergence of the genetic type. Some of us have pain or fatigue syndromes, which are intriguing, because their onset is usually traumatic. This trauma doesn’t have to be considered severe: it can be a relatively small injury, or a stressful time at work.
We could easily jump to the conclusion that neurodivergent people are more likely to experience a traumatic event than NTs. While this might be true for psychological trauma, it isn’t for physical traumas. Also, not everyone who goes through some trauma develops a chronic pain or chronic fatigue syndrome. I think that the comorbidity has a different root: a sensory root.
Symptoms of fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) include chronic pain in the joints, joint stiffness, chronic fatigue, sleeping issues and brain fog, known among patients as Fibrofog, which hinders short-term memory, concentration and perception. A cousin condition, myalgic encephalomyelitis / chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), has similar symptoms. Both syndromes are commonly comorbid to neurodivergent conditions, such as autism, ADHD, PTSD and multiple chemical sensitivity. Usually, both syndromes have a traumatic onset, either by a psychological or physical trauma. This type of trauma can also be the result of an infection, including a viral one, and there is some evidence that the conditions are genetic. Both conditions are chronic.
We are hypersensitive. That’s not a secret. This sensitivity can be psychological – we feel stronger, and it’s hard for us to manage those emotions. We respond to insults and to praise with a mountain of feeling. We take things to heart. It can also be physical – some light frequencies are blinding, smells are painful and sounds just drown us. We each have our sensory battles, but the triumphs are huge – some textures are just heavenly, jumping up and down makes our day all better, and sitting in a tight space makes us feel safe. The immersion in books is very real, and so is our immersion in nature. I think that FMS and ME/CFS are another facets of just that.
Sure, they have an onset. Something did happen to start them. And they make sensory issues worse. But I think they are a special kind of sensory overload, another way for our body to tell us that something is wrong, that something on the outside is bothering us. We already had an over-developed sensory experience. It is no wonder that some traumatic experience gave it another push, and set FMS or CFS in motion. A painful knee joint might tell us that our shoes are too loose, or too tight, or just uncomfortable. A brain fog might start because of bright lights, an over-crowded room or because we simply didn’t notice we were thirsty. Fatigue can tell us that something is bothering our sleep, or that we are cold.
Sensory sensitivities might be an important facet of giftedness.
Many artists and scientific geniuses were neurodivergent, and hypersensitive to their environment: Van Gough, and his world view as seen in his painting, Isaac Newton, that thought out-of-the-box to define the law of gravity, Einstein, Andy Warhol. A unique point of view of the world, and relationship to sensory experiences, is famously apparent. Sensory sensitivities might be an important facet of giftedness.
Yes, being diagnosed with FMS or ME/CFS gives us another label, another thing to consider. But is it really another label? Is it really something new to us? I think not. We learn from childhood to adapt ourselves to our sensory needs. We don’t always succeed. Sensory overload happens, and for people with FMS and ME/CFS, it happens constantly and persistently. My advice is simple: know your triggers. Adjust your life to avoid them. Experiment with different sleep durations, until you find the right one. Try different shoes. Try new sensory toys. Wear the scents that you like. And remember – sensory issues are also a blessing. They are a proof of how much connected we are to the world and to nature. They are proof of our creativity. They are part of who we are, even if sometimes they are just too much.
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5. Robertson, A. E., & Simmons, D. R. (2012). The Relationship between Sensory Sensitivity and Autistic Traits in the General Population. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(4), 775–784. doi: 10.1007/s10803-012-1608-7
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