At the age of six, Jack Craven started telling his mother he wanted to die. “God made a mistake when he made me,” he would say. “Why can’t I just die?” His mother, Lori Craven, says she didn’t even know that kids his age could think such things: “Can you imagine your child saying that?”
Jack, now 12, has sensory processing disorder (SPD). It’s a contentious diagnosis. Some doctors will argue that it doesn’t really exist, while those who recognize it estimate that sensory issues affect between 5 and 16 percent of us. For some people, this means they are oversensitive to lights or sounds, but there are others for whom a caress feels like sandpaper tearing their skin, and there are babies who will scream and won’t sleep unless they are held tightly and bolt upright. It can make what many of us take for granted as ‘normal’ life practically impossible.
As a toddler, Jack had found it unbearable to be anywhere loud: “There was a lot of screaming if it was noisy,” Lori recalls. “Actually, there was just a lot of screaming from him.” At school, “he was like a deer in headlights.” Jack is a bright boy, but the environment was so overwhelming he couldn’t perform well. He would come home and tell Lori that the other kids were saying he was “stupid,” “a dummy.” Now she schools him at home herself and every day, in everything they do, they have to consider Jack’s sensitivities, she says.
Despite the difficulties, however, some adults and some parents of kids with SPD report an upside. As well as being more reactive to physical sensations, they’re also more sensitive to other people’s emotions. To researchers, this is intriguing. Could sensory processing help explain the personalities of people we might otherwise just think of as ‘sensitive’? Might people with SPD even be at the extreme end of a spectrum of sensitivity that developed as an evolutionary advantage?