According to empirical studies and recent theories, people differ substantially in their reactivity or sensitivity to environmental influences with some being generally more affected than others. More sensitive individuals have been described as orchids and less-sensitive ones as dandelions.
Although our analysis supports the existence of highly sensitive or responsive individuals (i.e. orchids), the story regarding ‘dandelions’ is more complicated because they can be further divided into two categories. If we consider ‘dandelions’ as the metaphorical example of the low-sensitive group, what plant species best reflects the medium-sensitive group? Sticking to the well-known flower metaphor, we suggest ‘tulips’ as a prototypical example for medium sensitivity. Tulips are very common, but less fragile than orchids while more sensitive to climate than dandelions. In summary, while some people are highly sensitive (i.e. orchids), the majority have a medium sensitivity (i.e. tulips) and a substantial minority are characterised by a particularly low sensitivity (i.e. dandelions).
Most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere. A few of us, however, are more like the orchid: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care. So holds a provocative new theory of genetics, which asserts that the very genes that give us the most trouble as a species, causing behaviors that are self-destructive and antisocial, also underlie humankind’s phenomenal adaptability and evolutionary success. With a bad environment and poor parenting, orchid children can end up depressed, drug-addicted, or in jail-but with the right environment and good parenting, they can grow up to be society’s most creative, successful, and happy people.
At first glance, this idea, which I’ll call the orchid hypothesis, may seem a simple amendment to the vulnerability hypothesis. It merely adds that environment and experience can steer a person up instead of down. Yet it’s actually a completely new way to think about genetics and human behavior. Risk becomes possibility; vulnerability becomes plasticity and responsiveness. It’s one of those simple ideas with big, spreading implications. Gene variants generally considered misfortunes (poor Jim, he got the “bad” gene) can instead now be understood as highly leveraged evolutionary bets, with both high risks and high potential rewards: gambles that help create a diversified-portfolio approach to survival, with selection favoring parents who happen to invest in both dandelions and orchids.
For in the story of the figure of speech from which this book draws its enigmatic title—the metaphor of orchid and dandelion—lies a deep and often helpful truth about the origins of affliction and the redemption of individual lives. Most children—in our families, classrooms, or communities—are more or less like dandelions; they prosper and thrive almost anywhere they are planted. Like dandelions, these are the majority of children whose well-being is all but assured by their constitutional hardiness and strength. There are others, however, who, more like orchids, can wither and fade when unattended by caring support, but who—also like orchids—can become creatures of rare beauty, complexity, and elegance when met with compassion and kindness.
While a conventional but arguably deficient wisdom has held that children are either “vulnerable” or “resilient” to the trials that the world presents them, what our research and that of others has increasingly revealed is that the vulnerability/resilience contrast is a false (or at least misleading) dualism. It is a flawed dichotomy that attributes weakness or strength—frailty or vigor—to individual subgroups of youth and obscures a deeper reality that children simply differ, like orchids and dandelions, in their susceptibilities and sensitivities to the conditions of life that surround and sustain them. Most of our children can, like dandelions, thrive in all but the harshest, most bestial circumstances, but a minority of others, like orchids, either blossom beautifully or wane disappointingly, depending upon how we tend and spare and care for them. This is the redemptive secret the story herein reveals: that those orchid children who founder and fail can as easily become those who enliven and thrive in singular ways.
I’m always on the look out for new ways of thinking about and designing for neurological pluralism, especially when it comes in threes. Dandelions, tulips, and orchids designate low-sensitive, medium-sensitive, and high-sensitive people. I like the way this aligns with caves, campfires, and watering holes, the red, yellow, green of interaction badges, and the three speeds of collaboration.
Like many of my fellow autistics, I’m a cave orchid. I’m high-sensitive and need just the right sensory environment. I need deep spaces for deep work.
One of the more interesting ideas emerging from attention capital theory is the surprising role environment can play in supporting elite cognitive performance.
Professional writers seem to be at the cutting edge of this experimentation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the near future, we start to see more serious attention paid to constructing seriously deep spaces as our economy shifts towards increasingly demanding knowledge work.
When I get the right sensory environment, I can put the power of autistic special interest to work.
I’ll likely work dandelion, tulip, and orchid framing into my neurological pluralism advocacy, but first some more reading.