Highly sensitive person and autism. On the surface they look very similar, but there are differences! In this blog I will happily explain what these differences are.

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

For at least ten years I thought I was a highly sensitive person. And that’s actually not all that strange, because the media portrays a very narrow image of autism. If you look at some of the more known characters, like Rain Man and Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory, you’d say only white cis males are autistic. Characters like these are often seen as geniuses and non-speakers. 

Autism in real life is completely different from what you usually see. Hence, that’s why a lot of the traits are unknown to people. Moreover, that’s why a lot of people don’t know what exactly it entails and identify as a highly sensitive person. On the other hand, masculine people may think they are autistic, while in fact they are highly sensitive. In this blog I’d like to give some clarification!  

What Is Autism?

Autism is a neurotype that is not easy to describe. While the exact cause isn’t known, we do know that it is a congenital neurobiological development disorder. In short, this means that the information processing in the brain is different than that of other people.

Most people see the world in conjunction, just like one film is a coherent whole of images. Autistics usually see the world as separate photos. Hence, they see less coherence. Consequently, this makes it very difficult for them to understand what is happening around them.

The diagnosis ‘autistic disorder’ – also known as ‘classic autism’ or ‘Kanner’s syndrome’ – is no longer given. The current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-5, only speaks of one term: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The scientific basis for the earlier autism subtypes were insufficient. People who have had this diagnosis in the past can continue to use them, though.

Not every autistic has the same characteristics and traits. And not only are they different per person, they can also be different from time to time in one person. Moreover, they depend on someone’s mood and the situation they are in. There are, however, symptoms that occur in a large proportion of people with autism. For example, these characteristics and traits can be divided into social and communication limitations, fixed rituals and difficulty with change.

Why I Think That Highly Sensitive People Are Neurodivergent

Highly sensitive people and autistic people have some things in common. During my research I found out that a lot of people categorize being a highly sensitive person as a character trait. I personally disagree with that. In my opinion both autism and high sensitivity fall under the neurodiversity term.

Neurodiversity really just means that there are differences between brains. Moreover, there are brains that process information in different ways and use different ways of thinking and learning. For example, the autistic brain is one of them, but ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia and Gilles de la Tourette also fall under the neurodiversity umbrella. Therefore, I also consider being a highly sensitive person to also fall under this term, as the brains of HSPs also process information and stimuli in a different way than the “normal” neurotypical brain would. 

On the image, there is a caucasian woman standing in a sunflower field. She is looking down and smiling. She is wearing a jeans jacket and a white tshirt.

The Similarities Between The Highly Sensitive Person Trait And Autism

Because autism and high sensitivity both are neurodivergent, they show similarities. These are the similarities between a highly sensitive person and autism:

Extremely Sensitive To External And Internal Stimuli

Both parties know all too well what it is like to experience sensory input from their environment, like (loud) noises or a clothing label that stings in your neck. Moreover, both highly sensitive people and autistics can get overstimulated from their thoughts, feelings and emotions.

Overwhelm

Another similarity is the overwhelming feeling they both get from those stimuli. Both parties can become incredibly overwhelmed by all this input. Hence, this can result in extreme fatigue, shutdowns or panic attacks (if the person hasn’t developed coping mechanisms).

Empathy And Intuition

This is something that a lot of people don’t know because of misinformation in the media. Another trait highly sensitive people and autistic people can have in common is the extreme level of empathy. Autistic people are known for lacking empathy. However, it’s way more common for them to experience too much empathy, just like highly sensitive people do. They also can be very intuitive!  

What Are The Differences Between The Highly Sensitive Person Trait And Autism?

Now that we’ve discussed the similarities, let’s have a look at the differences. There are certain traits that people with autism do have, which highly sensitive people don’t. In order to demonstrate these traits, I applied the DSM-5. To meet the diagnostic criteria for ASD according to the DSM-5, a person must have persistent deficits in each of the criterial areas: 

  1. Social communication and interaction (in each of the three areas)
  2. Restricted, repetitive behaviors (at least two of four types)

Social Communication And Interaction

In autism, there are deficits in social-emotional reciprocity. This might include an abnormal social approach and/or a failure or normal back-and-forth conversation. Also, there may be deficits in sharing of interests, emotions or failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.

Additionally, there are deficits in nonverbal communication used for social interaction. This may include poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication, abnormalities in eye contact and body language. In addition, it may involve troubles with understanding and using gestures and facial expressions.

Another issue in area of social communication and interaction is developing, maintaining and understanding relationships. This might include having difficulties in adjusting behavior in different social settings, to the absence of interest in peers.  

What I have noticed is that most highly sensitive people don’t have as many issues in this field as autistic people do. A highly sensitive person may experience less trouble with connecting to people. Overall, they are social beings and do not experience these problems. In my research I have found that highly sensitive people often find social interaction very rewarding. They thrive on forming strong bonds with people, something that autistic people often find more challenging.

Restricted, Repetitive Behaviors

Another thing that characterizes autism, are the restricted and repetitive behaviors, interests or activities. These are some examples:

  • There are stereotyped or repetitive motor movements (like flapping hands, spinning around), use of objects (lining up toys or flipping objects) or speech (echolalia or idiosyncratic phrases).
  • Insistence of sameness. This means autistic people are inflexible in their routines, they have ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior (extreme distress at small changes), trouble with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals or samefooding.
  • Fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus. 
  • Hyper – or hyporeactivity to sensory input or an unusual interest in sensory aspect of their environment. This might look like excessive smelling or touching or things, or an occupation with lights or movement. Some autistic people might not notice pain. 

As you can see, this demonstrates the differences between the highly sensitive person trait and autism. Most highly sensitive people are not as rigid as autistic people are. They are often way more flexible and are struggling less with major changes compared to people with autism. If you do recognize any of the other behaviors listed above, it might be that you are not a highly sensitive, but autistic. 

Am I Autistic?

It could be the case that, after reading this blog, you recognize yourself in the autistic traits. It could be that you thought you were a highly sensitive person and that could still be the case! However, if you experience challenges in daily life with overstimulation, problems in social interactions and have troubles with communicating, you may want to look into autism. As I said earlier, a lot of people are overlooked because they don’t fit the one-sighted view of autism. 

It might be the case that you are feeling scared or worried after reading this. I want to let you know that you don’t have to be scared. I know that the society we currently live in, often sees autism as a negative thing. Being a highly sensitive person is also oftentimes looked at as something negative, because we live in a society that doesn’t value us sensitive people. Neurotypicals oftentimes see sensitivity as something to be ashamed of, as a weakness. But I want you to know that that’s not the truth.

We Need Sensitive Souls In This World

Please know that if you have the highly sensitive person- or autism trait, you have many strengths to bring to the table. You are probably very loyal and honest. Moreover, you are empathetic and intuitive. Also, you are creative and you are good at thinking outside the box. You view the world in such a beautiful way. Additionally, you have such specific knowledge and expertise. Finally, you’re an observer and have a good eye for detail. Embrace it. Cherish it. It makes you who you are and you’re allowed to be proud of that.

Shed the expectations of the world. The world is busy, crowded, hectic and the pressure is always on. If you’re autistic or a highly sensitive person, please know that it’s okay to follow your own pace. Your own path. It’s okay. It’s why you are here. I promise. 

Additional Literature

If you’d like to discover the topic autism more, here are some books I recommend you to read:

Neuro tribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity – Steve Silberman
The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism – Naoki Higashida
Loud hands: Autistic People, Speaking – Julia Bascom
But you don’t look autistic at all – Bianca Toeps
Divergent mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn’t Designed for You – Jenara Nerenberg 

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