If you’re highly sensitive or work with Highly Sensitive Children at some point you will have questioned what the differences are between a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) and those who are on the Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
The common struggles faced by a Highly Sensitive Person such as, feeling overwhelmed, experiencing strong emotions, processing things deeply and being very connected to the world around them can sometimes lead the HSP to feel like there is something ‘wrong’ with them. These traits of feeling over-stimulated are also found in autism, PTSD or other disorders commonly found in the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which is the handbook used by healthcare professionals to guide the diagnosis of mental disorders.
Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are two different conditions that can affect how individuals perceive and process sensory information from their environment. While there may be some overlap in symptoms between these two conditions, they are distinct and require different approaches to diagnosis and management.
The Highly Sensitive Person
Sensory processing sensitivity, sometimes referred to as highly sensitive person (HSP), is a trait that describes individuals who have heightened sensitivity to environmental stimuli such as sights, sounds, smells, textures, and emotions. This trait is believed to be present in about 20% of the population and is not considered a disorder or a diagnosis. People who are highly sensitive may have a more pronounced response to sensory stimuli than others, and they may need more time and space to process and recover from intense or overwhelming experiences. For example, a highly sensitive person may feel anxious or overstimulated in a noisy, crowded environment, or may be deeply affected by a sad or violent scene in a movie.
On the other hand, autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects social communication, behavior, and sensory processing. Autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a diagnosable condition that is typically identified in childhood, although some individuals may not receive a diagnosis until later in life.
Autism is characterized by a range of symptoms, including difficulties with social interaction, repetitive behaviors, restricted interests, and sensory processing challenges. Some individuals with autism may have heightened sensitivity to certain sensory stimuli, while others may have a diminished sensitivity or a lack of response to certain sensory inputs.
Although there may be some similarities between the sensory processing challenges experienced by highly sensitive individuals and those with autism, there are some key differences between the two conditions. For example, individuals with autism may have difficulty with social communication and interaction, while highly sensitive people do not necessarily have these challenges. Additionally, individuals with autism may display repetitive behaviors and may struggle with changes to routine, which is not a hallmark of sensory processing sensitivity.
Sensory Processing Sensitivity experienced by highly sensitive children and adults has never been categorized as a disorder and is even thought to consist of a number of beneficial traits. Labels provide a helpful roadmap to make sense of how we experience the world, yet, it’s also not as simple as fitting into one ‘category’ and not the other. Both High Sensitivity and Autism exist on a spectrum and every child has a unique way of experiencing the world based on their inherited traits and also their lived experiences.
What the Research Says...
The confusion between HSP and ASD lies in the fact that both groups of people tend to get overwhelmed by environmental stimuli. Those with autism may panic, act out or shut down in response to overwhelming situations, and some highly sensitive children can do the same thing when they get overstimulated. But despite this overlap, ASD and HSP can be distinguished from each other based on the research that highlights their distinct differences. These differences have been largely supported by a study, led by Dr. Bianca Acevedo of the Neuroscience Research Institute of the University of California which analyzed 27 papers comparing high sensitivity, autism, and other conditions.
It has been found that there are neurological differences between the HSP and those who are autistic. The highly sensitive brain has been shown to have higher-than-normal levels of activity in areas related to calmness, self-control and the ability to self-reflect. In contrast, the brain of those on the autistic spectrum tends to be less active when it comes to the brain regions related to calmness, self-control, emotional regulation and the ability to self-reflect.
According to Elaine N. Aron, the trait of high sensitivity, found in 20-30% of the population is likely to have nothing to do with a child/person on the autistic spectrum. In the DSM sensory processing sensitivity (the formal name for HSP) it is not associated with autism at all.
Another major difference is that HSP don’t struggle with ‘social’ issues like eye contact, recognizing faces, social cues, and knowing the intentions of others. An adults or child on the autism spectrum, even if high functioning, tends to lack understanding of what is going on emotionally in the other person – whereas those who are HSP appear to have a much stronger understanding and are often hyper-aware of what is going on for the other person.
Confusion and Differences in Children
Sometimes sensitivity and ASDs are confused because the adult or child with an ASD may have little or no ability to regulate emotions, and sensitive children, too, are more emotional than other children; however, another key difference, is children on the autistic spectrum struggle to regulate their emotions most of the time, it’s not just when they are overstimulated as is usually the case with highly sensitivity children.
HSC process information more thoroughly and because of this - gain more meaning from interacting with the world around them. Whereas autism can lead to a misinterpretation of the world around them rather than depth of processing. So HSP are extremely good at observing what’s going on in a social situation whereas those on the autism spectrum might be more confused by it.
Another difference is, HSC are extremely creative and are likely to engage in a variety of hobbies and interests whereas people on the AS have a more narrow and specific set of interests or preoccupations which can become repetitive and more compulsive forms of behaviour. This is often seen and observed in autistic children from a young age.
A final misunderstanding is that HSC are all introverted and don’t like social interaction. This is not the case! Around 30% of HSP are actually extroverted and really enjoy interacting with others. This is because HSC feel so much empathy and connection so when they are engaged in supportive and nourishing relationships they really thrive in these interactions.
To conclude, it’s important we don’t view either of these labels as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and it is important to remember that they all exist on a spectrum. It is also very possible that someone can be both on the autistic spectrum and Highly Sensitive. Highly sensitive individuals may also benefit from support and accommodations that can help them manage their sensory processing challenges. This may include strategies such as creating a calm and quiet environment, taking breaks when feeling overwhelmed, and using sensory tools like earplugs or fidget toys to regulate their sensory input. Individuals with autism may benefit from similar strategies as well as specialized therapies and interventions that address their social communication, behavior, and sensory processing challenges.
While sensory processing sensitivity and autism spectrum disorder share some similarities in terms of sensory processing challenges, they are distinct conditions that require different approaches to diagnosis and management. Understanding the differences between these two conditions can help individuals and their loved ones access the appropriate support and resources to manage their unique needs and challenges.
Acevedo B, Aron E, Pospos S, Jessen D. 2018 The functional highly sensitive brain: a review of the brain circuits underlying sensory processing sensitivity and seemingly related disorders. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 373: 20170161. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0161