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3 Disorders Your Highly Sensitive Child May Wrongly Be Diagnosed With

Signs of being a highly sensitive child — such as easily feeling overstimulated — can be mistaken for other conditions, like ADHD.

A few years ago, I confided in a friend that I was a highly sensitive person (HSP). I explained what the term meant and how being highly sensitive manifested itself in my life. For instance, I’m more sensitive to things like loud noises and bright lights, overstimulation, and to coarse fabrics and smells. It is something I have learned to adapt to, even embrace. Eager to categorize me, my friend suggested that I fell somewhere on the autism spectrum. 

At first, I couldn’t understand why that made sense to her. The more I thought about it though, I realized that traits and characteristics HSPs often exhibit are not exclusive to being highly sensitive. As a result, those of us who are highly sensitive may be incorrectly categorized or diagnosed as having other conditions or traits, or we may be highly sensitive and have other traits or conditions that make it hard to differentiate our behaviors. So while we adults may be misdiagnosed, children can be, too.

Assumptions Can Be Harmful to Children 

As highly sensitive children grow, assumptions and misdiagnoses can do more harm than good. Well-meaning family, friends, and even healthcare professionals are eager to find answers to try to create a smooth pathway for children in their care. But their assumptions about highly sensitive children are not always accurate, and that can cause kids to not get what they need to feel safe and loved. Doctors’ visits are different for HSPs, and a misdiagnosis can also be dangerous when children don’t get the proper treatment they need. 

Being an HSP is not a disorder — it’s due to a genetic trait found in about 20 percent of the population. And while a child may exhibit signs of other disorders, like getting overstimulated easily, the signs may actually just point to them being highly sensitive. Here are some disorders your highly sensitive child may be diagnosed with (wrongly).

3 Disorders Your Highly Sensitive Child May Be Wrongly Diagnosed With 

Autism 

Autism is a broad range or spectrum of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication. Autism affects approximately 1 in 54 children in the United States. By comparison, 1 in every 5 people are believed to be highly sensitive. There are some similarities, however. 

Like being highly sensitive, autism is influenced by genetic factors. Environmental factors, too, play a role, and there is no one single case exactly like another. What are challenges and gifts for one autistic child may not be the same for another child. The same is true for HSPs.

Another common trait between people with autism and HSPs is their extreme sensitivity to their environment. Both are easily stimulated by sights, sounds, and textures, as André Solo describes in “Is Being a Highly Sensitive Person the Same as Having Autism?” In addition, both autism and highly sensitivity offer many advantages, including empathy, compassion, creativity, and keen observational abilities. 

However, there are many differences, so categorizing or diagnosing a child as one when they may be the other can do a disservice to the child. A 2018 study by the Neuroscience Research Institute of the University of California identified three key differences between autism and highly sensitive people:

  • Autism may include “social deficits,” such as difficulty interpreting social cues, making eye contact, or recognizing faces. HSPs have the opposite experience.
  • Highly sensitive individuals find social situations to be very rewarding. They help us connect with others, so much so that we HSPs seek out deep, meaningful relationships, and we thrive when we find them. Autistic individuals also crave connection, but it may not be as rewarding for them.
  • HSPs, and those with autism, respond to stimuli differently. Both groups have high brain activity when stimulated, but HSPs tend to show greater empathy and they process more deeply. Autistic individuals’ brains are less active in terms of calm, emotion, and sociability. 

Because of these differences, if a child is miscategorized as autistic rather than highly sensitive, they may not get the type of help, nurturing, or connection they need. 

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) 

According to the CDC, a national 2016 parent survey found that 6.1 million, 9.4 percent, of U.S. children have been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), with boys more likely to be diagnosed with it than girls. The same survey showed that 5 in 10 children with ADHD had a behavior or conduct problem, and 3 in 10 had anxiety. In addition, about 14 percent of children with ADHD were also diagnosed with autism, and 1 percent with Tourette syndrome. 

Dr. Elaine Aron, an early pioneer of HSP research, encourages parents to check in with professionals before identifying or diagnosing a child’s behavior. She believes that some children diagnosed with ADHD may actually be highly sensitive instead, they may have ADHD and not be highly sensitive, or they could be both. 

The HSP trait and ADHD are often misdiagnosed for a variety of reasons. For example, large, crowded classrooms create chronic overstimulation, which is overwhelming to many children. Overstimulation may also occur at home with other family members, too many extracurricular activities, constant interruptions from TV and electronics, and so forth. While many children may manage such chaotic environments well, both highly sensitive children and those with ADHD cannot escape the overstimulation, Aron says. She also says it’s important to know which is occurring in order to identify the appropriate treatment or care of the child.

“To me, the important test is whether the person has good concentration in a quiet place,” Dr. Aron writes on her website. “Most of those with ADHD do not, and may concentrate better with some noises.” She also says that most HSPs have excellent concentration in quiet places, and when they are not overaroused. “So the important treatment for them is reducing stimulation and other sources of arousal and stress,” she writes. 

Depression 

Clinical depression and being highly sensitive are two very different things, but they can be related, even in children. Overstimulation can contribute to emotional tension and disparate thoughts. And overstimulation can manifest itself through anxiety and depression. Dr. Aron, too, points out that HSPs are genetically more vulnerable to depression. For example, a highly sensitive child may not want to leave their classroom setting if they experience chronic environmental overstimulation.

Internal stimulation — like hunger, thirst, being physically tired, or lack of sleep — can also be contributing factors when it comes to depression. And because HSPs have such a deep empathy for others, which often causes them to absorb others’ emotions, this can take a negative toll on HSPs, too. Similar to an adult suffering from depression, if a child is suffering from depression, they may no longer find joy in everyday activities, like sports or hobbies.

The confusion comes in since some signs of being an HSP and of depression can be similar. If an HSP child has an anxious or depressed parent, for instance, they may absorb the parent’s feelings or even imitate their behavior. So while the child may appear depressed, they may not be.

Whether a child is highly sensitive or clinically depressed, they should be seen by a medical professional to avoid missing key cues that will help the child get appropriate treatment. 

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Five Traits of Highly Sensitive Children 

In her book, The Highly Sensitive Child, Dr. Aron identifies five common traits of highly sensitive children.

  • They absorb more sensory information from the environment than other kids.
  • They process information deeply, accessing their creativity and intuition.
  • They have a lot of empathy for others and can absorb the emotional highs and lows of those around them.
  • They require more downtime from being overstimulated.
  • They may be prone to tantrums or meltdowns when overwhelmed (physically or emotionally).

If you aren’t sure if your child is highly sensitive, or experiencing another trait or condition, you may want to consider taking Dr. Aron’s self-test, “Is your child highly sensitive?” This is not a psychological test, but it can serve as a useful tool to determine what steps to take next. And, of course, an online test is not a replacement for speaking to a professional, like a psychotherapist or pediatrician, in person.

And keep in mind that children who are HSPs don’t necessarily have all the skills to understand or adapt to being highly sensitive. Parents raising highly sensitive children can help them by being patient, staying calm, praising them, being mindful of their tone, practicing self-care (for the child and themselves), and seeking help. Speaking of which, when in doubt, it’s always best to not diagnose your child yourself, but to get a professional opinion (or two).

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