Dr. Elayne Daniels

Our minds come in lots of different colors, each adding a unique hue to life’s tapestry. This article will look at two of the tapestry’s threads: high sensitivity (HS) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). How are Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) and people with autism alike? And how are they different? 

The two may seem as different as apples and oranges. But a closer look reveals overlap and divergence that make the human experience all the more colorful.

First up is the complex neurological presentation known as autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. 

Autism is like having a brain with a personalized operating system, complete with its quirks, challenges, and superpowers. 

Categorized as a developmental disorder, autism often has co-occurring medical conditions such as digestive, gastrointestinal, and autoimmune disorders.

We also have the symbol of a finely tuned instrument known as high sensitivity. Someone with high sensitivity is referred to as a Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP. 

Think of HSPs as the delicate orchids of human emotion, tuned into the nuances of their environment  with heightened sensitivity and depth. 

They pick up on everything, are affected by everything, respond to everything (even if only internally). They are the “more is more” of neurodivergence: More good is really good; more bad is, well, “more bad.”

Not sure how to distinguish high sensitivity from autism? Let’s delve into the similarities and differences between these two fascinating aspects of neurodiversity.

  • SENSORY SENSITIVITY
    • ASD: People on the autism spectrum experience sensory sensitivities, which can manifest in various ways. From hypersensitivity to certain textures, sounds, or lights, navigating the sensory landscape can feel like tiptoeing through a minefield.
    • HSP: Similarly, HSPs have finely tuned sensory antennae. They may pick up on subtleties that others miss, whether it’s the faintest whisper of a breeze or the subtle shift in someone’s mood across the room.
    • Common Ground
      • Both ASD and HS individuals may find crowded places overwhelming. Whether it’s a bustling city street or a noisy party, sometimes the sensory input can feel like a barrage of information overload.
  • EMOTIONAL DEPTH
    • ASD: While stereotypes may suggest otherwise, individuals with ASD experience emotions deeply, often with a richness and intensity that can catch others off guard. However, expressing and interpreting these emotions can sometimes feel like deciphering a foreign language.
    • HSP: Highly Sensitive Persons are emotional connoisseurs, attuned to the subtle nuances of feeling. They may feel deeply moved by a piece of music or profoundly affected by a poignant scene in a movie.
    • Common Ground
      • Both ASD and HS individuals may struggle with emotional regulation at times. The flood of feelings can be like riding a rollercoaster without a seatbelt: exhilarating yet occasionally overwhelming.
  • SOCIAL NAVIGATION
    • ASD: Social interactions can be akin to navigating a labyrinth for individuals with ASD. The unwritten rules of social engagement might as well be written in invisible ink, leaving them feeling like outsiders.
    • HSP: While not necessarily shy, Highly Sensitive Persons may prefer deep, meaningful connections over superficial small talk. They may feel drained by large social gatherings and crave quiet, intimate settings.
    • Common Ground:
      • Both ASD and HS individuals may find solace in solitude. A cozy night in with a good book or a meaningful conversation with a close friend can be infinitely more fulfilling than a crowded party.
  • ATTENTION TO DETAIL:
    • ASD: Often possessing a keen eye for detail, individuals with ASD may excel in fields that require meticulous attention, such as mathematics, engineering, or computer programming. However, this attention to detail can sometimes lead to getting lost in the minutiae.
    • HSP: Highly Sensitive Persons may notice subtleties that others overlook, whether it’s a change in facial expression or a shift in the atmosphere of a room. This heightened awareness can be both a blessing and a curse, as it can lead to sensory overload in certain situations.
    • Common Ground:
      • Both ASD and HSP individuals may have a deep appreciation for the finer things in life, whether it’s the intricate patterns in a piece of artwork or the delicate flavors in a gourmet meal.

On the one hand, people on the autism spectrum and people with high sensitivity share some common ground in their unique perspectives and experiences. 

On the other hand, they also display distinct differences. Embracing these differences enriches the tapestry of humanity, adding depth, color, and texture to the human experience.

So, whether you’re a quirky person with a knack for pattern recognition or a sensitive soul who sees the world in technicolor, remember that you’re not alone. We’re all just different flavors in the same cosmic soup, swirling and mingling in the cauldron of life. 

Why not celebrate our differences and embrace the rich tapestry of neurodiversity that makes our world a more vibrant and colorful place to be?

Cheers to being beautifully, wonderfully, gloriously human! 🌈

Dr. Elayne Daniels is a psychologist, consultant, and international coach in the Boston area whose passion is helping people celebrate their high sensitivity…and shine their light.

To read more about high sensitivity, check out some blogs here.

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