ADHD and Your Lived Experience: Modality Sensitivities

Episode 143

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Have you ever noticed being sensitive to too much noise or visual stimuli? Last week the hosts shared the concept of processing modalities as both strengths and challenges. This week they continue to look at modalities but introduce the concept of a sensitivity scale in addition to the strength scale. Modalities are the modes in which we prefer to process information and build knowledge.

For years organizer coach Denslow Brown observed that her clients demonstrated modal preferences when it came to developing and sustaining organizing systems. From this experience she developed her Processing Modalities workbook. Denslow ingeniously measured strengths and sensitivities on two separate and independent scales.

Cam and Shelly share multiple examples from their own clients to their own experiences to illustrate this sensitivity aspect – an aspect that ADHD people can be extra vulnerable to. Shelly distinguishes hyposensitivity from hypersensitivity when she shares the story of two organizing clients with a very different experience with physical stuff. Listeners will approach how sensitivities to modalities shape our lived experience.

Episode links + resources:

Processing Modalities – Denslow Brown MCC

Translating ADHD and the hosts do not benefit financially from sharing third party links.

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Episode Transcript:

[00:00:00] Shelly: Hi, I’m Shelly,

[00:00:01] Cam: And I’m Cam.

[00:00:02] Shelly: This week we’re gonna revisit our topic from last week of modalities, but we’re going to look at an aspect of modalities that is often not talked about. Cam, do you wanna say more about where we’re headed today?

[00:00:17] Cam: Yes, Shelly, I will. I think that when people think about processing modalities, they think about Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences and look at it from this strength or challenge model. And we talked about that last week and in the program notes we provided a few resources to get started there.

This week we’re gonna talk about something, as you said it’s, not often spoken of is this line between strength and sensitivity. when is a good thing become too much of a good thing? And with ADHD and challenges around regulation, right? So regulating not only emotion, but like incoming stimuli and so, Again the intuitive individual where it becomes too stimulating and then gets overstimulated overwhelmed in some way, and they’re gonna have some kind of cognitive shutdown event.

[00:01:16] Shelly: Yeah, so just to clarify for our listeners, last week we really talked about modalities in terms of strength and challenge. This week we’re gonna talk about modalities in terms of sensitivity, and this is where I really love Denslow Brown’s work on processing modalities.

Now her book is written and intended for professional organizers working with clients. With that being said, I’ve had several clients of my own who I’ve used this book with who picked up a copy of their own because they found it valuable and were able to sort of read past that specific context and really get to the heart of her great work here. And one of the things I love about her work here, it’s not just this idea of two scales, one of strength and one of sensitivity, but the idea that they are mutually exclusive, meaning, You may or may not have sensitivities in your strong modalities.

You may or may not have sensitivities in your weak modalities. It’s an evaluation that exists on two separate scales, and I think looking at processing modalities this way can really teach you a lot about yourself.

[00:02:25] Cam: Yeah, and you have an example to lead us off here to demonstrate this, and I’ll follow up with my own example.

[00:02:31] Shelly: So I wanna talk about two organizing clients that I was working with at the same time, and how they existed on two different ends of the sensitivity scale for the visual modality. Okay, so one end being hypersensitive. The other end being hyposensitive. Two home offices, two self-employed individuals that I was working with in the same period of time.

Client number one was hypersensitive in the visual modality. So how did this play out in our organizing work? Well, a few ways. Number one, it meant that very little could be just out. On her desk and what was out needed to be contained. So really just the basics. A pen cup, her stapler, and a couple of other frequently used items.

Everything else went into a drawer or somewhere out of sight. For containers. We used a bookshelf and. Put different types of supplies in different containers. Those containers needed to be opaque, not see through with a nice, neat printed label. Her filing system needed to be color coded with labels printed, so you can see how the need for visual order played out in every decision we made in the organizing process and how it looked for this client.

 Just as important as how it functioned. And finding the intersection of those two things was a big part of my work with this client. Now let’s talk about the client that was Hyposensitive exact opposite situation. So for this client, we did things like take the doors off of the closet in her office. We took down the doors, we took down all the closet hardware, and we drug in two or three bookcases that she already owned.

That did not match and put things on them in an open storage way, meaning they didn’t go in a container at. Because part of this client’s goals was to be able to easily grab with the many hats that she wore and all of them being hats that involved her getting in her car and going somewhere what she needed at that moment in time, and to be able to come back and easily just chuck it back on the shelf And the fact that it looked a little visually messy. Did not matter to her. When we did her file system, we reused her old, ugly beat up folders. She hand wrote some labels. I hand wrote some labels. My handwriting’s terrible, by the way, for my clients that, that, that do have that hypersensitive visual modality thing or just have neat handwriting.

If we are using handwritten labels, they will often ask to write their own labels because my handwriting is pretty terrible. This client didn’t care. She didn’t care that it was a mix of my handwriting and her handwriting. She didn’t care that the file folders didn’t match. It just didn’t matter to her because for her being hyposensitive, if we put something too far away, so if we put it in an opaque container with a nice, neat label on it, she might as well not own it. Whereas if we put it out on a bookshelf where she can see it and contextualize it easily, then she can find what she needs.

[00:05:55] Cam: Those are great examples of two different clients and again, the different ends of this sensitivity spectrum. My client – As you were talking there, I was thinking about her and how environment informs her sensitivity.

So Tom Hartman wrote a book about hunters and farmers, and this has been making a comeback, and she’s sort of the classic hunter, right? Is that she’s a mover, she’s a high associative. We talk about in the sense of wired for context. Sampling information at a high rate. And she also has a high visual aspect. And so if she’s out at a work site and she’s trying to solve a dilemma with everyone there, the structural engineer, the permit people, the contractor, the client, everyone, she is the one that connects the dots.

She is the one that sees the forest through the trees and is able to do this rapid assessment and come up with a solution set, and everyone is like, How did you do that? She’s like, I really don’t know, but it’s a strength area. So there’s a couple different modalities that are in play.

That sort of, again, do we call it intuitive? Do we call it this wired for context and the ability to see the big picture? There are these categories that are pretty broad and, we were talking about this before Shelly, sort of like where is the emotionally intuitive, where is that line between the two?

Now take that same client and put her in her office with some Kind of boring work. And she’s sitting in her office in this beautiful office in a storefront. In a city where there’s a lot of tourists and they’re walking by with their ice cream cones in front of her, and she’s like, a bird dog, you know, Or just like, monitoring, monitoring, monitoring these, like these people walking by and she’s super, super distracted.

Because of all this stimuli and very little context to work with, right? And has some task of like, Oh, I gotta file that permit now. Well, who wants to file that permit? And so here’s this different environment where this strength becomes a super sensitivity. But then where she goes with is, I’m super distracted and I’m bored.

But if. In the coaching, we kind of come back to, How are these different environments informing these modalities that you operate in? So what did we do? We found a way to kind of, isolate those and buffer her from those external stimuli and find a way to engage with that work in a different.

[00:08:34] Shelly: Love that example, Cam, and I love that you bring up environment. And I think it’s worth coming back to my two clients to talk about environment for a moment. For the client that was hypersensitive – that needed everything to be very visually orderly – visual clutter created mental clutter to work at an environment that felt messy or chaotic. Made her feel internally messy or chaotic, made it very difficult for her to plan, organize, stay on task, all of those ADHD things that are a challenge anyway.

And my client, who is hyposensitive, where I would put myself up more toward hypersensitive, I could never work in this client’s office with all of these varying supplies. So she worked in real estate, also owned some property, and also worked with animal rescues. Among other things, so depending upon where she was going that day, she might need client files, she might need keys, she might need pet supplies, she might need tools to fix something. As a landlord, just a high degree of variability in what she might be grabbing. And therefore a high number of items that we put out in this closet with no doors for her to be able to easily grab and go and then come back and throw back. And for her, what was throwing her off about her environment was just that not being able to put her hands on what she needed. So taking a dog crate out to her. And using it for the purpose that she had intended that day, but then not bringing it back in because it doesn’t really have a place to go or taking it out of her car and putting it into the garage to get it out of the way. So this, for that client, it wasn’t really just a matter of just organizing the office, it was the combination of office, garage, and car.

That is the one client where I can say I spent an entire three hour session on her car. And not that the car itself was so full and disorganized, but that along the way, talking about the interplay between these environments for her and the frustration of not being able to find what she needed when she needed it, and how we could solve for that was really the work ahead.

[00:10:54] Cam: So I love that story and it just goes back to the brilliant work that Denslow has done with this. And I know that there’s listeners out there who are saying, Oh, all this modality stuff, they’re not able to replicate this in neuro imaging. Right. Like Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences, we cannot see the different areas of the brain light up when someone is doing one of these intelligences in the sense of dance or music movement mathematics being in nature the uh, inter social, intra social, et cetera, et cetera.

And I will say that this is really at the user experience end that Denslow and other organizers like her and Shelly when she was an organizer. You go out and you’re with your clients and you watch them how they are engaging with their environment and with their stuff, and that empirical data of people engage with their stuff in certain ways, in certain behaviors and habits.

And so it may not be that it gets transferred or into an image in the brain of what’s going on, but this stuff is definitely at play. And listeners, as you are listening in it’s, a starting place. It’s a place to open the door. If you have no interest in processing modalities, that’s okay.

There are other areas to look at with respect to your context matters. I used to teach a section in a class on processing modalities, and I have stopped because a third we’re just giddy about it. A third we’re like, Well, that’s interesting. And a third we’re like, eh, doesn’t really interest me. What I do though is now offer it as a resource, just like as we’re offering it as a resource for. It is something to look at if you have a certain sensitivity or challenge with a certain.

[00:13:01] Shelly: I’m glad you brought that up, Cam, because at the end of the day, as coaches, we deal in the business of lived experience. That is what we do all day is help our clients put words to and make meaning from their lived experiences. And one of the ways that we do that is by throwing some context into the mix. Tossing processing modalities into the mix. If we hear them, and that concept may not land for every client, even if they’re describing a classic processing modalities related dilemma. And that’s okay we tell our group coaching people all the time, they tend to show up and apologize at first if they get something wrong from the podcast. We always like to start with what’s a hope for the class or a translating ADHD moment. And those sharing, those translating ADHD moments can be apologetic for not getting it right. And so one of the very first things we do is we invite them to not worry about getting it right, because it’s not about.

Right or wrong, the show is entirely take what works for you, modify if you need to. You don’t have to take our mantras and metaphors and models and take them at face value. You can modify them to work for you and leave the rest if there is a concept. We had somebody pretty recently who was talking about a concept that just she couldn’t quite get a hold of, and so it’s okay to leave that one behind. It really is.

So Cam, one thing I wanna throw in about sensitivity and the visual modality before we continue is a different type of dilemma that sensitivity can produce. So we’ve already talked about the two ends and my two clients and how those sensitivity’s manifested. However, another classic dilemma I see in ADHD people who are. Hypersensitive and the visual modality is perfectionism. That need for environment to be just so that Millennium Falcon response that can come from that.

That’s from an early episode of I can’t just clean, I can’t just clear my desk off. I have to find a place for the papers. And if I’m gonna find a place for the papers, that means I need to organize the file cabinet. And in order to organize the file cabinet, I have to organize the closet it’s in and to organize the closet it’s in. Now I have to organize the basement because a lot of those things should live down there and so on and so forth. So I share that to let you know that these sensitivities. Have some predictable manifestations for people like Cam and I who do this work of listening to lived experiences all day, but there’s more than one way that that sensitivity might manifest, right? Meaning having a nice visually orderly environment is one way to support visual hypersensitivity, but. Unto itself can become its own set of challenges if that person’s context includes having perfectionism on board, and I thought that that was worth saying.

[00:16:09] Cam: Yeah, and it’s a great example of why we don’t subscribe to this prescriptive approach to managing ADHD. It’s really about getting curious and developing your awareness around these strength areas, around your sensitivities, around these challenge areas, and to take inventory and develop your own practices from your lived experience.

[00:16:34] Shelly: Cam, I’d love to go to your example now because talking about your example and then mine both fall in the realm of group settings, which can be really challenging for ADHD people. So I think it’s a really cool place to look to articulate some other modality sensitivities and how they play out.

[00:16:57] Cam: Yeah and so as Shelly and I were talking about before we started the recording today, it was just again, like a balance of, those sort of traditional modalities of verbal and visual kinesthetic, as I said, observer, mover and associative. Going into like, again, emotional, intuitive and where do you draw the line there?

And so Shelly and I were just talking about different examples of how they show up for us. And one that I noticed was if I am going out to dinner, the size of the group matters for me.

[00:17:32] Shelly: And I just wanna give some backstory here. When one is going to one of the industry conferences that Cam and I often attend. It is pretty normal to end up at a dinner with 15, 20, 25, 30 people around one table. Sometimes as a planned event. This group of people is going to get together, sometimes is a spontaneous who doesn’t have dinner Plans come along with us.

[00:17:58] Cam: Right. And again, so, with Coach Approach, we get together and there’s often this group of 15 people we’re going out and we go get this long table. And so what happens at a table with 15 is you get multiple conversations. I can’t converse with the group at the other end. And so you’re in your group and you’re having your conversation.

And this harken back to Thanksgiving dinners, right, that I noticed that I would get super quiet at Thanksgiving dinners when I was a kid because if there was about, I don’t know, eight or more people at a table, well, what you would have is you’d have two to three to four conversations going simultaneously.

And so I would say that again, my listener or my ability to listen has developed into quite a strength. Right now, is that innate? Is that from my coaching training? It’s probably both. And so I can pick up certain things, but in a situation where there is multiple conversations going, my high associated brain is trying to sample every single one of those conversations, and then I can’t focus.

With distractability it’s hard for me to focus on the conversation right in front of me. And so what have I done over this time? I have just made it a point to say, I’m sorry, you know, I’m gonna go out with, four to six people at most, and that’s what I do, right? Whether it’s a conference or having a dinner party, we’re not gonna do a large dinner.

And so again, the other thing is like what’s in play here, right? Is it just my ear? No, it’s not just my listening. It’s the associative wiring, right? That high associative wired for context piece. I also think there’s a emotional and intuitive element here, right? I have a developed intuition that many good coaches.

But in those situations where it’s visually stimulating and oh by the way, I didn’t even talk about the spread and the food, Shelly and the, you know, the sensory of taste and touch and you’re eating and drinking wine or drinking a beer, and it becomes this sort of sensory smorgasboard. I tend to kind of just start to shut down. It’s not about like, okay, I’ve gotta figure out how to be successful at a table of 12. No. There, like how often am I sitting at a table of 12? It’s really looking to engineer or plan for an event that’s gonna be successful for everyone, right? So just make it a point to getting together with folks. It might be a a four. Or a six top and that’s it.

[00:20:50] Shelly: So, as Cam was talking about this before we hit record today, I realized while I share a challenge with him here, including a sensitivity and the auditory modality, when I thought about myself in that same situation around that huge dinner table with 15 people, the challenge for me is in large group dynamics. A lot of my friends travel for Phish Tour in these huge groups. They get Airbnbs together, they rent cars together, and on occasion I will join one of these big groups when the logistics dictate that’s the best way to travel. For example, going to the Gorge Amphitheater in Washington State is logistically challenging for a number of reasons. It’s two hours outside of Seattle and you have to camp, so you’re already looking at a rental car.

And everyone flying in with their camping gear. And so spreading that responsibility across many people makes for a better experience than trying to fly by oneself, rent a car by oneself, and have a functional campsite in the high desert, where things like shade are pretty important, buy oneself, but almost any other time, I don’t travel in big groups, and here’s why. It’s this intersection of my intuitive and emotional modalities. So my intuitive modality, which has only gotten stronger as I’ve come along in my coaching career, is picking up on other people’s stuff. Other people’s unmet needs, whether set or unsaid little. Dynamics that are uncomfortable happening between individuals or smaller groups of people that maybe the larger group is not aware of ways in which people are uncomfortable or feel out of place. Just all of this, it’s like I, feel in a big group, like I’m often the one like perched on the ledge observing the whole group, and I could tell you, Big and small, what all of the challenging dynamics within that group are. Which is really hard when you’re also trying to function within that group, right?

It’s an area of strength of mine. I actually coached work teams for a while before I decided to go all the way into ADHD coaching, and that was really fun because That was my job, is to sit on the ledge and to help the group see these challenging dynamics. But being in the group and seeing these challenging dynamics and having my own challenges with emotional sensitivity as well in the emotional modality, make it really tough because I want things to go well for everybody.

And so I see something that isn’t going right for someone that I’m not involved in that brings up an emotional response, and now I don’t know what to do with that. I don’t know what’s appropriate here. I don’t know whether to interject myself or not, and because all of this has so much of my attention, I’m doing a pretty poor job of taking care of my own needs within the larger group.

It’s like my needs cease to exist when I am in a large group setting. So not only do I choose to travel in small groups, the people that I regularly travel with on Fish Shore are people that I know can take care of their own needs, that I know that I can set a boundary with, that I know that I can adjust and take care of my own need, even if that means leaving them to their own devices.

And that’s okay. And that’s really actually quite important for me and something I hadn’t really thought all the way through in this way before. It’s an adjustment that I’ve made over time recognizing that I don’t like traveling in big groups except for when it makes the most sense to do so. But I really had never thought about why, particularly in the context of modalities or our artwork, our coaching work, Cam.

[00:24:49] Cam: Yeah, and your Phish story about pitching the tent and making shade. Right. The shade structure episode back, I think it was over the summer. It was really around, you know, recognizing let’s get our needs met. Right. You came up with your three rules of a great Phish tour, right? Of like, let’s take care of ourselves.

Let’s start with and address our personal needs. So I just remember that of how, again, your experience and last week we talked Shelly about again, going and testing and trying. And that data that we get from our experience and then taking that learning forward, you’ve done that successfully. I’ve done that successfully and that we do that with our clients.

Is that to sort of see these different modalities at work? Are there sensitivities? But you won’t necessarily find a sensitivity unless you trip over it. Right. Have that frustrating experience. Sitting on the edge and being in that big group dynamic. then make a life that fits, which is another dense, low statement, right, To have and develop agency and really create your own preferences there so you can have the optimal experience for yourself.

[00:26:09] Shelly: It’s so funny that you bring up that small crew too, because there’s an example of a where there’s room for me in that group. These are close enough friendships that even if we get frustrated at each other or downright upset at each other because there are conflicting needs or there’s a misunderstanding, we can work that out and we have worked it out before traveling with other people is tough.

Under the best of circumstances. Traveling with anyone who is not your partner is tough, but these are friends who have done it with for so long that it’s not so tough. Even in that moment when I’m watching this happen, I’m internally, okay, I’m hot, I’m frustrated. I wish these two would stop with the shade structure already, but I know that once we get past this, we’re gonna be fine.

There’s gonna be no lingering hard feelings and we’re gonna have a great weekend. Whereas that same dynamic playing out in a group of 15 people who I don’t know as well, I don’t know if we’re gonna be fine. I don’t know. What’s gonna happen from here? I just know that this is a stressful situation and I don’t know my role in this situation, Cam, we could probably keep talking about sensitivity is for quite a bit longer, and I’m sure it’s something we will come back to, although not next week. Next week we’ve got a little different for you and I think we’re gonna keep it a surprise. So stay tuned for then. But for this week, I think this is a good place for us to pause. 

[00:27:41] Cam: And let me piggyback on pause right there, right that take our pause, disrupt, pivot, and apply it here, right? If you are feeling frustrated, if you’re feeling overly sensitive or under sensitive. Right in the sentence of hyposensitive that you’re not reading the signal in the room to pause and disrupt and step back and just consider this idea of a modality at work or a modality not at work, right?

It is a point to engage with that keen observer, bring some curiosity and some awareness and consider. Is that coming into play? Is that impacting in some way?

[00:28:23] Shelly: Well said, Cam. So if you like what we’re doing here on the show, three big ways you can help us out. You know them already, so I’m gonna keep it short and sweet this season. Number one, leave a review wherever you listen. This helps other people find our show and know why we’re different than other ADHD podcasts out there.

Number two, share us on social with a friend in your neurodivergent support group at work. And finally, you can become a patron. Visit the website and click on the Patreon link in the upper right hand corner and for five bucks a month, not only are you helping Cam and I cover all of the costs of running the show, which our Patreon has been doing now for what, a year and a half or better, which is amazing. Thank you everyone so much. You also gain access to our Discord community where our listeners are working together to do their own, understand, own, and translate work. So until next week, I’m she.

[00:29:18] Cam: And I’m Cam.

[00:29:18] Shelly: And this was the Translating ADHD podcast. Thanks for listening.

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