Dandelions, Tulips, and Orchids

woman with purple flower on ear

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).

Dandelions, tulips and orchids: evidence for the existence of low-sensitive, medium-sensitive and high-sensitive individuals | Translational Psychiatry

While reading up on the stress model of autism, we came across the Dandelions, Tulips, and Orchids framing via @peripheralminds.

We’re always on the look out for new ways of thinking about and designing for neurological pluralism. Dandelions, tulips, and orchids designate low-sensitive, medium-sensitive, and high-sensitive people. We 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 our fellow autistics, we are cave orchids. We’re high-sensitive and need just the right sensory environment. We 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.

Simon Winchester’s Writing Barn – Study Hacks – Cal Newport

More Than Vulnerability and Resilience

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.

The Science of Success – The Atlantic

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.

The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive

Findings suggest that environmental sensitivity is a continuous and normally distributed trait but that people fall into three distinct sensitive groups along a sensitivity continuum.

In conclusion, besides providing evidence that the HSP scale reflects indeed a unitary dimension of environmental sensitivity, we identified three sensitivity groups in the general population rather than the two proposed by common theories on individual differences in environmental sensitivity. In addition to high-sensitive (i.e. orchids) and low-sensitive (i.e. dandelions) individuals, we also detected a group representing individuals with medium sensitivity (i.e. tulips). Orchids are characterised by higher neuroticism and lower extraversion while being more susceptible to positive mood induction. Dandelions are more extraverted and score lower on neuroticism but also have a lower positive emotional reactivity with tulips being situated between dandelions and orchids.

Dandelions, tulips and orchids: evidence for the existence of low-sensitive, medium-sensitive and high-sensitive individuals | Translational Psychiatry

Differential Susceptibility

Neurodivergent people are hypersensitive to mindset and environment due to a greater number of neuronal connections. They have both a higher risk for trauma and a large capacity for sensing safety.

Neuroception and the 3 Part Brain

Evidence that adverse rearing environments exert negative effects particularly on children and adults presumed “vulnerable” for temperamental or genetic reasons may actually reflect something else: heightened susceptibility to the negative effects of risky environments and to the beneficial effects of supportive environments. Building on Belsky’s (1997, 2005; Belsky & Pluess, 2009) evolutionary-inspired differential susceptibility hypothesis stipulating that some individuals, including children, are more affected—both for better and for worse—by their environmental exposures and developmental experiences, recent research consistent with this claim is reviewed. It reveals that in many cases, including both observational field studies and experimental intervention ones, putatively vulnerable children and adults are especially susceptible to both positive and negative environmental effects. In addition to reviewing relevant evidence, unknowns in the differential-susceptibility equation are highlighted.

Differential Susceptibility to Environmental Influences | International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy | Full Text

Hyper-plasticity predisposes us to have strong associative reactions to trauma. Our threat-response learning system is turned to high alert. The flip side of this hyper-plasticity is that we also adapt quickly to environments that are truly safe for our nervous system.

The stereotypes of meltdowns and self-harm in autism come from the fact that we frequently have stress responses to things that others do not perceive as distressing. Because our unique safety needs are not widely understood, growing up with extensive trauma has become our default.

Because of our different bio-social responses to stimulus, autistic people have significant barriers to accessing safety.

Discovering a Trauma-Informed Positive Autistic Identity

Part of our neuroception is genetic. Neurodivergent people have heightened neuroception from birth or before birth.

Danger cues that are very painful to a neurodivergent person may be neutral or pleasant to someone else.

How to Use the Polyvagal Ladder. A set of graphics

Psychological safety is increasingly recognised as central to mental health & wellbeing. The polyvagal theory offers a ‘Science of Safety’ which can help inform clinical practice to promote wellbeing, resilience & post-traumatic growth, whilst mitigating trauma.

Developing a standardised measure of psychological safety.

Comparing ND to being an (HSP) Highly Sensitive Person

It depends on who you ask. Some people say it is different others say it is the same thing but HSP’s aren’t aware they are ND.

Similarities and Differences

How they are the same

How they are different

HSP’s are really just ADHD

Journal articles

The differential susceptibility hypothesis /Orchid-Dandelion hypothesis is a more scientific/researched concept than HSP that overlaps

Evidence for the existence of low-sensitive, medium-sensitive and high-sensitive individuals

The author that coined HSP’s discussed how they are different. However, many of her explanations are outdated , inaccurate, and a little ableist.

Neurodivergence Info — Dr. Christine Henry

Neurodivergent people are psychological safety barometers.

Further reading,

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Published by Ryan Boren

#ActuallyAutistic retired technologist turned wannabe-sociologist. Equity literate education, respectfully connected parenting, passion-based learning, indie ed-tech, neurodiversity, social model of disability, design for real life, inclusion, open web, open source. he/they