Neurodivergent brains work differently from the neurotypical brain. Many suggest that includes being “sensitive.” Are they right?
The question of whether highly sensitive people (HSPs) are neurodivergent — meaning that their brains work differently than the typical brain — has become a hot topic. Many people feel passionately about the issue of neurodiversity, because those who are neurodivergent are often misunderstood or even mistreated, especially as children. Highly sensitive people can certainly relate, and our sensitivity certainly makes us “different.” But does that mean sensitive people are neurodivergent?
There is not yet a consensus among sensitivity researchers and clinicians about whether HSPs are neurodivergent, and I am in no way speaking for my colleagues. However, as a practicing psychologist who specializes in working with HSPs, I do have an informed opinion. In this article, I’ll share share my take and highlight key issues so that you can come to your own conclusion. My goal is to help you understand your own sensitivity, so that you know how to take action to help yourself and other HSPs.
What does it mean to be neurodivergent?
The concept of neurodiversity emerged from the research of sociologist Judy Singer’s work in the 1990s. She emphasized that every member of the human species has a unique brain composition, and that this “neurodiversity” is necessary and healthy for the species.
She intended the term to be descriptive and political, but not meant as a diagnostic, or even scientific, research category. And she clearly stated: “Neurodiversity doesn’t distinguish between Difference and Disability. That is a human concept, within a specific cultural context.”
Such an appreciation for differences — without pathologizing them — seems to have been lost in subsequent years, albeit often with noble intentions to advocate for those whose differences may have led to their marginalization in society. The discourse around neurodiversity has shifted from a recognition of individual uniqueness to a focus on questions of what it means to be neurotypical or neurodivergent.
As a psychologist trained in a scientist-practitioner model of counseling psychology, it is important to me that we have a shared definition of these terms so that we avoid misunderstandings. At this point, researchers do not have a consistent definition in use for what it means to be neurodivergent or neurotypical. (In fact, the American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology has not yet created entries for neurodiverse, neurodiversity, neurotypical, or neurodivergent, reflecting the lack of scientific consensus about their terms.) Online, they are frequently referred to as “non-medical terms,” reflecting their broad usage without an underlying shared definition among medical and behavioral health researchers.
So where do we situate high sensitivity in this still-emerging area?
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The Case for High Sensitivity as Neurodiversity
The notion of neurodiversity as Singer describes it holds tremendous appeal to me. It fits with my belief in the uniqueness and inherent worth of each person. In this context, it makes sense to me to think of high sensitivity as neurodiversity.
After all, Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), one of the names scientists use for the trait that defines HSPs, has been shown to reflect significant differences in brain functioning in highly sensitive versus non-highly sensitive people. Or, as I frequently say: HSPs are wired differently from the mainstream. And since sensitive people are in the minority at only about 30 percent of the population, they might casually be described as a neurodiverse group.
The Problem with Calling Highly Sensitive People Neurodivergent
I struggle to take the leap and view HSPs as neurodivergent, at least as the term is frequently used at this time. The term tends to be used to describe people who have identified brain disorders or medical conditions. Sensory processing sensitivity is not a disorder or disability. It is a natural variation found in over 100 species. Given how stigmatized being highly sensitive is already, I’m reluctant to frame it in any way that could give the appearance that SPS is somehow undesirable or a deficit.
In addition, the dichotomous categorization of neurotypical or neurodivergent seems to oversimplify the celebration of difference inherent in the concept of neurodiversity. I hear too many people arguing over who is neurodivergent, as if “neurotypical” — someone who behaves in a way that’s considered “the norm” by society — is something that we have clearly established as a baseline for human functioning. HSPs are not a deviation from the “right” or “normal” way of being, because there isn’t one typical human brain.
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An Alternative to Neurodivergence: Temperament
Since I don’t see HSPs as neurodivergent, I feel like you deserve to understand how I do view SPS. For me, the lens of temperament is a rich and beneficial explanation of what it means to be highly sensitive.
What is temperament? Temperament is innate, meaning that we are born with it and keep it throughout our lives — even if we learn new ways to manage and express it. In addition, the fact that temperament is heritable, and evolutionarily conserved, suggests that it has value to our species.
Temperament is the “nature” aspect of ourselves, the biologically-determined aspects of who we are, based on our unique brain structure and genetic and epigenetic factors. Temperament is sometimes described as “how” people do things. In contrast, personality is the “what” and “why” of our behavior, developed through experiences and learning over time.
Sensitivity is one aspect of temperament. Other aspects include preferred activity level, activity level, rhythmicity (the extent to which biological rhythms like eating and sleeping are consistent or irregular), adaptability, and persistence. These aspects interact and contribute to how people are unique. For instance, two HSPs may have the same level of sensitivity, but one has a high activity level and the other a lower level. The interaction of these factors helps explain why the first HSP may be able to tolerate a busier lifestyle, while the second HSP prefers a slower tempo.
All aspects of temperament are inherently neutral. It is not better or worse to have a particular level of any temperamental quality. Humanity needs the full range of each aspect of temperament to thrive.
I find temperament to be useful for explaining to myself (and others) how SPS originates, why it is a permanent part of who a person is, and what the positive aspects are of being highly sensitive. Temperament reduces the pressure to conform to the imagined (or explicit) standards of our culture, which tends to be organized for people with low or average levels of sensitivity.
Instead of looking for the lifestyle change, therapy, medication, coaching, or self-actualization process that helps an HSP “fit into” the culture, we can question that assumption that fitting in is a desirable pursuit. We can look at how our world fails highly sensitive people and advocate for change at the systems level, within society, rather than just within individual highly sensitive people.
You’re Free to Disagree With Me
Some people undoubtedly find it helpful to see HSPs as neurodivergent. That is certainly your right, and I’m curious about how that serves you. Perhaps this perspective helps you embrace the fact that being an HSP is a fundamental, life-long part of your identity. And I hope that you are not internalizing the shame and stigma that something is “wrong” with you as an HSP because you do not conform to a hypothetical neurotypical standard.
A Call to Action for All Highly Sensitive People
Whether you use the lens of temperament, neurodivergence, or some other way of understanding what it means to be an HSP, I hope (and suspect) that we can find more common ground than disagreements. Let us come together to celebrate what HSPs contribute to society. Share with the world how HSPs make a positive impact and how vital we are to humanity.
Also, let’s advocate for conditions that would help HSPs, since they are quite frankly conditions that would help people in general: a slower pace, a quieter world, more respect for individuals and cultures, protection of animals and the natural environment, and embracing creativity and uniqueness.
So cultivate your unique gifts as an HSP. Learn ways to work around, or through, your challenges, whether they’re due to sensitivity or other aspects of who you are. Get support. Challenge the stigma and shame that make highly sensitive people feel small or defective. After all, the world is desperate for more of what our neurodiversity has to offer.
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You might like:
- The Difference Between the Highly Sensitive Brain and the ‘Typical’ Brain
- Here’s Everything Researchers Know About High Sensitivity, as of 2021
- How I ‘Rediscovered’ My High Sensitivity Trait
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