Highly Sensitive: How is it Diagnosed and Why Does it Matter?

Did you get a highly sensitive diagnosis by a professional or did you self-diagnose?” is a common question in forums for highly sensitive people (HSP), or parents of highly sensitive children (HSC).

What is a diagnosis? According to Merriam Webster:

“Diagnosis: investigation or analysis of the cause or nature of a condition, situation or problem.” or

“the art of act of identifying a disease from its signs and symptoms.”

So first thing’s first: I cannot stress enough that high sensitivity is not an illness, nor a disorder. And it certainly doesn’t always lead to problems – once you understand it.

Highly Sensitive: How is it Diagnosed and why does it matter?

Being highly sensitive is about how your nervous system picks up and processes sensory information around you (generally deeper and more intensely than non- highly sensitives). High sensitivity is about personality traits – how you respond to the information that your system processes. It’s about the essence of who you are (or who your child is) and why you (they) respond as you (they) do in situations or to events or incidents.

Many parents, in my experience, come to learn about their child being highly sensitive through passing comments from someone who spends a lot of time with their child – teachers, family members or friends. Or they read an article or stumble upon a blog post and connect the dots.

Parents are usually set along the highly sensitive path by someone who sees a behaviour or trait in their child that they recognise as potentially being a highly sensitive characteristic.

In my case it was a pre-school teacher who witnessed my son’s intense separation anxiety that lasted for months. She saw how tears formed in his eyes if another child hurt themselves or felt upset. She saw his caution whilst other children leapt without thinking.

She threw the words ‘highly sensitive’ into the air, and I scooped them up and ran with them. I read everything I could read on the topic and Elaine Aron became a huge name in our home. I found Aron’s HSC checklist and decided I was definitely on the right path. Lightbulbs glowed brightly as I read The Highly Sensitive Child (UK link here). So, it was a self-diagnosis.

Sometimes that initial nudge onto the highly sensitive path comes from a medical professional or a therapist or phycologist – as an explanation for behaviours or issues (like anxiety or extreme food pickiness for example).

But even if that is the case an official professional diagnosis is unlikely to be given, not in the same way a parent may get a diagnosis of autism or ADHD for their child. There is a simple reason for this. In Elaine Aron’s words:

“Your trait is normal. It is found in 15 to 20% of the population–too many to be a disorder, but not enough to be well understood by the majority of those around you.” 

A few years back a child therapist relayed to us that my son was indeed probably just highly sensitive, after she had ruled out everything else on her checklist. She determined that there was nothing wrong with my child (which I of course already knew) and she wrote it in her report. That’s as far as she could go when it came to highly sensitive.

The brutal reality is that a label helps you get the support you may need in the education system for specific behaviours or traits that cause issues in the classroom. That’s why many parents understandably seek an official diagnosis, but the reality is it’s hard to get a diagnosis for something that is not an illness, a disorder or, in many cases, even a problem.

If you believe you are, or your child is, highly sensitive it is certainly not a reason to hightail it to your doctor or a medical professional. Instead, read everything you can to develop your understanding of what being highly sensitive means (there’s a list of reading resources here) and talk to other parents of highly sensitive children or parents who are highly sensitive themselves (there’s a Happy Sensitive Kids Facebook community here).

A ‘self-diagnosis’ of highly sensitive helps you understand yourself or your child better – and it puts you in a great place to move forward.

Once you have a good understanding of what highly sensitive is and how it effects you or your child there are many tools available to support you – and one of these may well be expert help. A professional can help frame what being highly sensitive means for you or your child – but it is certainly not a necessity. Be warned that many medical or mental health professionals do not know what highly sensitive is, let alone understand the specifics so you need to do your homework to find the right person to help.

You may also reach the conclusion that behaviours or traits are not explained by high sensitivity, in which case professional advice could be your next step.

But often self-diagnosis is enough to give you real insight – self diagnosis is certainly about self discovery and is the first step to parenting or living life differently.

For a follow up to this topic read My Child is Highly Sensitive – Now What?

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About Amanda van Mulligen

Mother, writer, author, blogger. I was born in Britain but live in the Netherlands. I have three Dutch sons and a Dutch husband and I blog about Turning Dutch and raising highly sensitive children.
This entry was posted in The How, The What and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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