Although there are some overlapping traits between being a highly sensitive person and having autism, brain science suggests some staggering differences.
As a highly sensitive person (HSP), and therapist, I am passionate about learning everything I can related to mental health. This led me to a very interesting question posed in both clinical and pop psychology: Is being a highly sensitive person, otherwise known as sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), simply another presentation of autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?
It is no surprise that this question has become increasingly debated, as both types of individuals are found to be more sensitive to environmental stimuli as compared to those who do not identify in these categories.
Despite the two having similar sensitivities to things such as loud noises, intense smells, large crowds, and the sensitivity to environmental stimuli, the reason for these anomalies differ both in the root causes and how their traits impact overall quality of life.
When Dr. Elaine Aron first coined the term of the highly sensitive person nearly 30 years ago, she explicitly stated that being an HSP is not the same as being autistic. However, the research was not as well-informed as it is presently. Some critics say that her assumption further stigmatized autism as being a disability while supporting high sensitivity as a “gift.” She was accurate in seeing high sensitivity as a gift; however, it also comes with its own set of challenges, similar to how autism has its own benefits and challenges. Let’s take a look at the characteristics of both and how each was identified.
What Is High Sensitivity?
One of the primary differences between high sensitivity and autism is how they are first identified. High sensitivity is a heritable and evolutionary trait — it is a state trait affecting patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving that is generalized across various situations. Although everyone is sensitive to an extent, some people are more so than others.
Approximately 30 percent of people are born more sensitive than average, both physically and emotionally. (About 40 percent of people are average in sensitivity, while 20 percent are low in sensitivity.) Researchers refer to this trait as environmental sensitivity (also known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity, SPS). And all three levels of environmental sensitivity are considered to be healthy and normal.
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And people who fall near the high end of the sensitivity continuum are called highly sensitive people (HSPs). They are often highly in tune with their physical environment, as well as the emotions of others — they are highly empathic. They tend to notice subtle details that others miss and may be more bothered by textures, noises, and other things in the environment that don’t affect other people as much, if at all. Highly sensitive people are known to think deeply and are usually highly creative, too. Some researchers also believe high sensitivity is linked to giftedness.
As for someone determining whether or not they are a highly sensitive person, the trait can be identified with the validated, self-report highly sensitive person scale created by Dr. Aron. The HSP trait is not featured in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), nor is it a diagnosable disorder — since it is not a disorder. Furthermore, the trait is highly variable based on environmental factors. So if an HSP is at optimal arousal, many of the more challenging aspects of being highly sensitive (such as feeling overwhelmed or emotionally exhausted) can be remedied.
What Is Autism?
Being a highly sensitive person differs from autism in that the traits of autism are not as readily impacted by simply lowering stimulation levels. This is not to say that reduced stress, healthy structure, and the use of stimming (a behavior common in those with autism using repetitive movements or sounds that help soothe the nervous system) do not help an autistic individual feel calmer. But, rather, the reason for ASD behaviors to present is more commonly an experience occurring internally in the way the autistic brain is wired.
Autism, which accounts for approximately 2 percent of the population, is a congenital anomaly that is found in the DSM. It is as varied in its presentation as there are humans diagnosed with the disorder. According to the DSM criteria for autism, it includes hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input, deficits in social emotional reciprocity, abnormal social approaches, potential issues with verbal communication, abnormalities with eye contact and body language, and deficits in understanding the use of gestures of others. At times, there can also be a total lack of facial expressions and non-verbal communication.
Now, let’s take a look at a few key characteristics that differ between highly sensitive people and those who have autism.
4 Key Differences Between Highly Sensitive People and Those With Autism
1. HSPs need alone time for different reasons than those with autism.
Although a severely overwhelmed HSP may need alone time — like retreating to a dark room and not talking to or looking at anyone — the reasons for the behaviors are not the same as why someone with autism would need to do so. HSPs most commonly excel in the previously mentioned areas that the DSM identifies as autistic traits, such as enhanced social emotional- reciprocity, good communication skills, and the ability to comprehend and understand others’ body language. The reason that an HSP would need to retreat or reduce stimulation in their environment would most commonly occur from overuse of this skill set.
2. Empathy in highly sensitive people is innate whereas the research is mixed among those with autism.
The previously held belief was that social deficits seen in autism were a result of a lack of empathy. While this theory has been supported by previous research, more recent research has uncovered that those with autism have the ability to experience empathy similar to how neurotypicals do — those who think and behave in ways that are considered “the norm” by society.
Neuroscientist Mirella Dapretto of UCLA describes that “noisy brain networks” are the reason for many of the social deficits with autism. Dapretto hypothesizes that even though mirror neurons (brain cells that fire both when performing or observing an action) fire similarly with ASD individuals as neurotypicals, other areas of the ASD brain are far more hyperactive, essentially causing clutter in the processing experience.
How mirror neurons function in HSPs highlight another difference between ASD and HSPs, as highly sensitive people have mirror neurons that are far more active than neurotypical individuals. According to research examining HSPs’ responses to others’ emotions in a set of photographs, there was increased brain activation of regions involved in attention and action planning found when HSPs viewed the emotions of others. For happy and sad photos viewed by HSPs, there was heightened activation of brain regions involved in awareness, integration of sensory information, empathy, and action planning. What this means is that the highly sensitive brain must express empathy because their brain is wired to do so.
The consistent firing of mirror neurons in the brain of an HSP is one of the primary reasons highly sensitive people absorb the energy and mood of those around them. Even the external stimulation — such as lighting, sound, and decor — become part of their processing experience when determining whether they (or others around them) are comfortable. (Sidenote: This is one reason HSPs can make excellent party hosts — even though they may have an emotional hangover the next day from all the overstimulation.) These qualities are one of the greatest strengths of an HSP — they lead to deep social connection, for instance. But it is crucial to manage the output of energy and empathy to minimize issues with sensory overload.
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3. While depth of processing is one of the key traits among HSPs, those with autism engage in breadth of processing.
Depth of processing is one of the universal descriptors of highly sensitive people. It’s responsible for the intuitive abilities of an HSP, both regarding others’ emotions and pertaining to life’s many choices. It is also the reason why HSPs take more time and energy to arrive at decisions, as they tend to extensively analyze their lived experiences, along with all potential outcomes.
Research by Jadzia Jagiellowicz found that highly sensitive people use parts of the brain associated with “deeper” processing of information, especially on tasks that involve noticing subtleties, as compared to neurotypical individuals.
While those with autism also engage in depth of processing, especially when related to something they are interested in, they also equally engage in breadth of processing, which is less common in highly sensitive people. What this translates to is a wider focus of attention for those with autism — whereas they may not analyze one specific situation or social response of another as intensely, their brain is hard at work organizing a number of other separate experiences.
While most people see the world around them cohesively, those with autism experience a more separated world, made of distinct mental images. This unique way of seeing the world is yet another difference in processing that further highlights how highly sensitive people and those with autism differ. Both process deeply, which can lead to sensory overload. However, among HSPs, it is a result of depth of processing in one area, especially in relation to other’s emotional experiences. Whereas in those with autism, they experience sensory overload because their brain has a larger stack of sensory input to sift through, causing the “noisy brain network” that Dipretto discussed.
4. Both HSPs and those with autism possess many strengths, some of which overlap, yet others do not.
Both HSPs and individuals with autism possess incredible strengths as a result of the unique way their brain differs from the rest of the human population. Some of the same mechanisms in the brain that cause difficulties for autistic individuals also result in incredible gifts and talents. As Dr. Hans Asperger (1906-1980) said: “It seems that for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential.” There is certainly truth to this statement, as there is much to learn and appreciate from people who experience the world in the way the autistic individual does.
For HSPs, they, too, possess unique gifts and strengths that enhance their life, often in areas such as social connection, intimacy, entrepreneurship, creativity, and efforts towards human justice. By trying to understand the similarities between the two — and the ways in which both are distinctly different — it helps increase self-awareness, as well as an appreciation and compassion for one another. And that’s all we can hope for.
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